"Lightness/Darkness" Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania 2015
When I was a kid, I was raised believing a certain way — the way my parent’s believed. Being as I was homeschooled on a farm in the middle of Missouri, I can’t say there was much in the way of available contradictory facts that might have caused me to question the beliefs I was raised with… Well, no real facts except one MASSIVE one. I was gay. And my parent’s were conservative Christians. And according to them and all their friends and all my friends (at the time) the general feeling was that I was a sinner and going to hell for my homosexuality. Now this is a heavy burden to place on a kid at any age, but regardless I tried my best to believe in what I had been taught and act accordingly — meaning I tried to act and think as someone who is heterosexual. And for a long time, I thought I would succeed in becoming who everyone else believed I should be. Then, as I got older I remember wanting to kill myself over the confusion I felt, confusion over being unable to reconcile the way I had been told to believe life was and the way it actually was for me.
When I started to drive and realized I wanted to get into filmmaking, I joined a kid’s news program that taped at the ABC affiliate in Springfield, Missouri, two hours away from where my family lived. I became a reporter for Kid’s Team 33 and wet my toes in the world of live news production. It was an amazing experience, and I’m so grateful for that particular opportunity. But I’m most grateful for one moment in particular, a moment that would change the course of my life, though I couldn’t see it at the time. On November 5, 1996, me, another reporter, and a camera man were at the the watch party for the Dole/Kemp campaign in Springfield as election results were coming in. There were all kinds of local reporters there and one of them wanted to interview me being as I was a young Republican who was clearly not happy that Clinton/Gore was winning the night. Suddenly, there I was on camera being asked why I was a Republican and the only answer I could give was that I was against abortion and my parents were Republican. Despite the reporter seeming satisfied with that answer, I was bothered by it. I knew at the time relying on beliefs handed down to me was not a good enough reason to do something. And I was determined to figure out why I knew my answer rang so hollow in the deepest recesses of my heart.
When I came out to California to attend Art School, I began making friends with kids around my college campus who, for the most part, did not share the belief system I had been raised with or adhered to. And once again, as I was asked to defend my positions political and otherwise, I had no real solid responses other than that’s the way I was raised or that’s what the Bible says. And though I might have gotten away with this hazy understanding of my own values forever, as I began writing screenplays, I realized quickly that to successfully portray a vast array of characters and to tell interesting stories that connect on a realistic and — most importantly — human level to a large audience, you have to see the world through many, many points of view. You need to know why your villains are doing whatever they are doing as much as you need to understand why your heroes are behaving the way they are. And in that process of questioning the motives of your villains and heroes, you end up questioning their belief systems. Well, let me tell you what I quickly began to realize about beliefs — they are either based on feelings or they are based on facts. But let me also assure you feelings are not facts, and knowing the difference means seeing the world through two completely different lenses.
Complicating matters is the reality that we live in a society that is more obsessed with their feelings than they are facts, and this is ironic because unlike when I was a kid and you had to drive to the library, go through a card catalogue, and then search the stacks for a piece of information from some random book in order to find any kind of fact, nowadays you can google anything in two seconds and get the “facts." But this availability of information is also part of the problem, meaning that if you want to google “is climate change a lie," you’ll get a thousand hits from websites claiming climate change is a total hoax. On the flip side, if you google “is climate change real” you’ll get a thousand hits assuring you our world is screwed. So, which is it? And this goes for literally EVERYTHING in our lives. For every blog that touts the virtues of X, Y, and Z, there is another blog that will assure you of the opposite. And Facebook doesn’t help. On Facebook we can pare down our friends and the posts we see to just those that are relevant to the way we feel about the world regardless of the facts. And unfortunately that puts us all back on a small rural farm with nothing to challenge the way we are thinking and believing.
The first classic I ever read was Madame Bovary. Before that, the only books I had read were mostly Christian fiction, and to be honest they weren’t awful, but they also didn’t expand my mind very much. They only reinforced what I had already been taught to believe. After Madame Bovary, I read The Great Gatsby. Then, I read Maurice and followed that up with Dracula, Catcher in the Rye, Julian, One Hundred Years of Solitude, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Love in the Time of Cholera, Lolita, and biographies about Picasso, Tennessee Williams, and Andy Warhol amongst many others. Next I started reading newspapers, The LA Times, The New York Times, San Francisco Gate, USA Today. Well, the classics opened my eyes to the diversity of our planet and the possibilities of language and story telling. The biographies taught me that an artist must known himself and have a grounded sense of the world because an artist's duty is to transform the world into a better place by mirroring society back onto itself or projecting the possibility of what our society can become. The newspapers, though... For the first time in my life, I found myself with an abundance of facts. They gave me access to journalists who were required by a code of ethics to not just write down their feelings but write the truth they found from research into legitimate sources. And it was hard for me to digest what I was reading at first because sometimes — heck, a lot of times — what was reported ran contrary to what I had been raised to believe or what I felt was true. In fact, I had been raised to believe the "news media" was evil. According to my family and many who practiced our particular brand of protestant faith, The New York Times and the like was not to be trusted. And unless the journalist writing a story was a born again Christian or a known conservative, I shouldn't listen to or read a word they had to say. However, I figured what was the worst that could happen if I actually checked out what the evil mainstream media was saying? Well, wouldn't you know, the stories they reported didn't, in fact, align with all I had been raised to believe. And eventually, they led me to one of the biggest newsflashes of my life: I wasn’t going to die and go to hell for being gay. And well, to say the least that little bit of information was a life changer.
But just knowing that I was fearfully and wonderfully perfect as a homosexual made me want to explore more. For instance, why did I want to be a filmmaker? Why was I a Republican? Did I really believe in the Bible? Why didn’t I believe in climate change? What about gun control? Should abortion be legal? Was a Ford truck really better than a Chevy? Based on the facts I garnered, for the first time, I got to start making educated decisions about what kind of human being I was and how I was going to interact with this planet. And that’s something I don’t believe a lot of people realize they have control over. I think a lot of folks live in some hazy shell of belief, like I used to. They’re lost in beliefs that have been handed down to them and which they accept as fact when in truth they're are actually based on nothing more than feelings — feelings of nostalgia, feelings of fear, feelings of anger, etc. People remain Baptist or Catholic, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, etc., etc., and they’ve never actually stopped to ask themselves, why? I certainly hadn’t. Not until I was blindsided by that question at that watch party when I was 17. I want to challenge everyone out there to ask yourself why you believe what you do and is that belief based on a feeling or a fact. And if you don’t have an answer, then find one. But my challenge goes even further. Don’t look for those answers from someplace that’s gonna adhere to your feelings like your friends or some left leaning or right leaning entertainer, news station, blog, or holy book. And don’t just accept one answer. If something sounds too awful to be true, it might be. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And when someone wants to talk to you about conspiracy that chills you to your bones tell them you’ll hold out for the facts even if those facts might be harder to understand or learn about in than your feelings, ‘cause in this day in age we need to rely on fact not feelings. Trust me, feelings are great, but they will keep a little farm boy in the closet back on a small farm in Missouri when facts will set us all free to make the world a better place.