Some words in contemporary discourse are used too much and thought about too little. At the same time, I heard that the use of another set of words, words such as kindness and mercy, has been declining since the mid-twentieth century at least. It matters because the words we use indicate the state of our minds, our hearts, and our intentions. Words like spiritual seem to be used a fair amount; describing yourself as “spiritual but not religious” is a common expression. We talk freely about rights, dreams, goals, and describe things—including people—as being out of the mainstream, or even radical.
At the same time, the analysis I referred to shows that words like mercy and responsibility show up with decreasing frequency in published writing and in audio transcriptions over the past 50-70 years.
At the moment, our culture is focused on achievement, on prevailing through the struggles of life, on ultimately winning the contest of life. If there’s a problem with this way of thinking—and I believe there is—it’s that human life is not a contest that needs to be, or even can be, won.
I think artmaking reflects this idea. Win all you want or all you can. In a hundred years, you’ll be just as dead as Julius Caesar, and less than a hundred years from that time, few people, if any, will have any inkling that you ever existed. Furthermore, whether you’re one of life’s great winners or someone who must accept a humbler existence, you will encounter loss as your life unfolds. Ultimately, the only “art” to living is to make of those losses, something that nourishes others.” That quote is from the physician and writer, Rachel Naomi Remen. Dr. Remen was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a teenager, and wasn’t expected live much beyond her 40th birthday. She devoted a significant portion of her career to teaching students in medical school the value of listening to their patients, as well as attending to their own feelings in response to the losses they suffer through the setbacks and sufferings of their patients.
We are not here to win. Such a statement is all but heresy in the secular theology of a culture based on market capitalism. But we are not, like or not, accept it or not. We are here to live, to give voice to our own astonishment, the words of the great writer, Annie Dillard.
Cultivating a serious practice in art making can help us remain grounded, can keep us focused on what sustains and enlarges life, and can help us avoid being taken in by the shallow and ephemeral nature of consumer culture. Yet the way forward in the practice of making art might be experienced as an exercise in frustration and failure more than a way toward peaceful fulfillment of our creativity. And if you approach other careers in that same spirit, I believe the statement still holds that you’re likely to experience periods of giving a lot of effort to gain a result that might not have been what you sought or intended.
But we’re not called to win, to have everything go right, or even to struggle and achieve some measure of success, even it’s intermittent. The call of life, of vocation, of truth is the call to keep pushing forward, even when we can’t see the way. The call to make art, or better, live our lives in an artful way regardless of whether our work is considered “artistic” is to find a worthwhile direction and begin the journey in that direction, but then to keep going even when the path is dark and outcome uncertain.
The reward or the reward for the effort, for the sacrifice, the payoff, is integrity, a life that can hold our own respect years from now, when the current culture of today has morphed into something else, and possibly left us behind.