Sometimes something about your life is off. You’ve played by the rules and followed the laws. You can master a week of meetings. Your team achieves its goals. Your writing gets published. Your art gets exhibited. Your kids make the grade. And, yet, when you have time to gaze out the windshield or the train window on your commute, or when you have a rare and real lunch break to pause between meetings, you hear or feel that kind of “off” something.
Is it your relationship, your job, the whole way you’re approaching your days?
It might be not only your business but how you conduct the very business if not busyness of your life that is at stake.
Here’s the funny thing: All of us, men and women with an iota of sensitivity, experience deep existential unrest at least once in our grown-up life. Yet when we feel that “off”-ness, a part of us refuses to admit that whatever is off is serious.
Because if you did admit it the uncertainty of what to do instead might overwhelm you.
Because big change often brings big pain.
Because it seems easier to remain the same.
This is precisely why certain forms of art can be dangerous. Art doesn’t let us ignore what’s knocking. Art disrupts our default “always-on” mode of experiencing life as one checked-off action after another.
Consider this story.
By the time Rainer Rilke was 33, he had already established himself as a decent poet of sacred verse. Beautiful poems but lofty, given to abstractions and common spiritual imagery. Something in his poetry was off, and whatever it was mirrored something off in how the poet approached life.
Rilke took a job with Auguste Rodin, the most prominent of sculptors who revived the art form. From the bronze shaper, Rilke saw the power of shaping physical material and ordinary subjects into beauty. Rodin helped train Rilke’s eyes to see the sacred in a swan or gazelle, in a jar or a bridge. He helped Rilke gain the patience to work the material of word and line, of image and rhythm.
I can imagine the young poet – three poetry collections behind him – on assignment from his mentor to visit a museum. Suddenly, the remnants of an ancient Greek sculpture seize him.
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
After centuries, the sculptor’s fiery fusing with his divine subject still radiates from the stone. Such making, such art, sees right through all of you. Art awakens again that hunger to feel more and to be more. Art calls your inner outlaw out of the cave.
And I wonder if in Rilke’s making of the poem, a well-honed sonnet in German, that the making itself surprised him with that last line that startles us as well.
You must change your life.
Such art sees right through you and demands you listen.
This poem has been a personal touchstone for nearly 30 years. It has startled me awake numerous times since I was 22 and first discovered it, and my life has changed in the making many times over.
To make art that changes the maker as much as the receiver must come from more than finessing craft just as to make an artful business that matters must come from more than applying sound business principles.
Both come from how you spend your days and how you spend your limited attention.
Are you listening? Must you change what you’re making and how you’re making this one astonishing life?