Every day on my way to Wolverhampton University I pass a bunch of Jehovah’s Witnesses on the bridge between the train station and town. They are always there and they are always smiling. They are there in good weather and bad. There are usually three of them. They stand on the side of the bridge next to a pamphlet stand. In all the times I have passed them, they haven’t once approached me and tried to engage in theological debate with me.
This bothers me. Why aren’t they approaching me, or anyone else, who passes them daily? Perhaps they are waiting to be approached. Yet I haven’t yet seen someone stop and peruse their pamphlets. They don’t even try to catch my eye. Sometimes I almost will them to stop me just because it would prevent me from feeling uneasy about their passive presence. I’d find a more active presence reassuring. I could then at least say ‘I’m in a hurry, sorry’. That opportunity is not afforded to me.
Why then do they spend hours on the bridge in Wolverhampton standing by their pamphlet stand? I imagine that they have a rota and that rota lasts all year around (with perhaps the odd day off). There must be a lot of them as I’m not sure I’ve seen the same person twice yet. If they are there to be just a passive presence, then they must have a goal in mind beyond the obvious (converts to their beliefs).
What this illustrates is what I see as a very admirable quality in those people: tenacity. Tenacity in the face of apparent futility. To me, it appears futile for them to spend so many hours in the cold in Wolverhampton not trying to share their beliefs with the people of the city. However, they must be seeing a positive I can’t see (I am thinking and writing about them, after all).
Their passivity is deserving of more respect than if they were to be more active and engaging. Their beliefs in their religion must be so strong that standing on a bridge for hours without any new members gained is seen as a tangible benefit to them. I suspect that they believe that if they had one person approach them in a month, then that would be seen as rendering the hours waiting worth it. I wonder even if they would conclude that one person a year is worth it.
Today, I have been making my daily search for lost and abandoned balloons. I haven’t found any for a while. And many people I know think I am really rather odd to be trying. To me, it is a similar (not so extreme) tenacity that drives me as that which drives the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Wolverhampton. My tenacity stems from the belief in the cause and aim of this art project: to find beauty in these discarded objects. If I find one balloon in a month, it is worth it. (However, I suspect that one a year might annoy me a little.)
So, what does the authentic artist and the Jehovah’s Witness have in common? It is obvious to me: tenacity in the face of futility as concluded by the minds of others. I would imagine that the tired, ‘what’s the point of it all’ Jehovah’s Witness would be regarded as not fully for the cause. Equally, the tired, ‘what’s the point of it all’ artist will not full realise their goals, not for lack of skill or ideas, but for lack of authenticity and self-belief.
So I will keep looking for balloons, keep missing trains, and keep on until I think my work is done. I hope that this at least makes me authentic.
I will end this thought with the words of Erich Fromm: ‘no great radical idea can survive unless it is embodied in individuals whose lives are the message.’