Heeding the Call of Art
Bill Long 7/31/05
In the last few days I have had conversations with several men in their early 50s, all of whom seem to be wrestling with the same issue in life. To put it in theological terms, they all feel that they are receiving a "call" to do something different with their lives, but this sense of call both allures and disturbs them. In this mini-essay I want to reflect on the nature of this gentle but insistent inner bidding.
A Successful Life
These men have all had successful careers, in law or academia or management. They came out of the tradition in the late 1960s and early 1970s that told aspiring and talented males that you should go ahead and get all your education as soon as possible so that you could enter into your chosen profession fully "trained" in your late 20s and then begin the arduous but rewarding climb to the top. Each of them dutifully completed his education at top private colleges and graduate or professional schools and entered into more than two decades of work life. As one of them explained to me, the plan was to look at career as if it was a spreading oak tree. The first years would be used to grow a deep root system and sturdy trunk, the next stage would be to send out a wide network of branches, and the culminating stage of career would be to produce fruits and leaves that gave shade, protection and beauty for all who would look his way. All knew that it would take years to do this; none of them was expecting instant gratification.
And, twenty-five years later, they all are "successes" from almost every measure that the world considers important. They have money, professional visibility, healthy families and good friends. Hardships there have definitely been, but these are not the type of guys who will dwell in those hardships or bemoan the losses that have attended their success.
An Inner Tug
Yet perspectives change as we age. And unpredictable things happen to you. But even if, from all external measures, things seem to be going as planned, other insistent voices begin to arise and give you messages that you haven't previously heard or heeded. The message may arise because of a new sense you have that you are mortal. You knew that previously in your mind, but now you feel it in your body; you now know your vulnerability, and you know that your days will end some day. Even though you are still at the age of commanding presence and strong mind, you are aware of the fact that there will eventually be slow erosion or massive decline of faculties. You are too old to protest this process; too far along in life to cry "unfair," because you know in your heart of hearts that life has been more than fair to you so far. So, you face the inescapable reality that this life will end some day and that you best prepare yourself for that day.
It is in this context that you become aware of a message that is trying to get through to you. But you can't really hear it clearly at first. It is as if someone is trying to speak to you either in another language, a language which you remember taking for a semester in college and have forgotten, or over a weak phone-line connection, and you can't really understand everything that is being said. But you definitely want to hear it.
The best way I have to describe what is happening to you is that "art" is calling to you. "Art" is saying to you that your best days are still ahead of you, but that now is the time to make some decisions to realize the blessedness of those days. "Art" tells you that the window will be open for some time, but not forever, for you to make this choice. "Art" is telling you that you are more than your accomplishments, and that life is much more than heeding the voices of students, colleagues, trustees and editors of professional journals. There is another voice, that comes from deep in your own psyche, that now insists that you pay attention to it.
It is both your own voice and a voice that doesn't belong to you. It is your own to the extent that it knows you so well. It knows your past and your struggles and the way you have had to deny yourself repeatedly to make yourself the success that you are. And it is this voice that says that you ought to stop doing what you are doing or risk the loss of your soul. But it is also a sort of voice that doesn't belong to you, because it says that what you might end up doing in the days ahead is either unclear or is quite unrelated to the things that have occupied your professional life. To that extent it is a voice that you don't really recognize but you feel you want to approach and heed.
What to Do?
This is not an easy question to answer. I think that most men who get the inner urging, the tug of art, ignore it or tamp it down. I have no statistics on this, of course, but I think that probably about 75% of men try to ignore the call. Why? In a word, fear. Fear of financial ruin if you leave what you have been doing. Fear of losing all your secure things when the voice you are trying to heed may not be at all clear to you and probably will provide few securities. Fear that this "call" is only a restlessness that has to be "overcome" by diligent attendance on the task at hand. In addition, it is not always clear what it would mean to heed the call of "art." Some men may be able to do so by "cutting back" on work and exploring a creative outlet a day a week. Others may find that it requires a complete change of venue for life. But once you have stopped the momentum that attends your professional life, you have to establish a new rhythm, a new way to work, a new way of seeing the world. Frequently it takes longer than a year to discover a new rhythm for yourself. Start-up costs for creativity are also immense.
I would like to urge the men of my generation to heed the call of art. You know it is there. It may even be more insistent than your first "call" to work 25 or more years ago. It is almost as nagging as an adolescent sex drive, though not as overwhelmingly intrusive. But it is there and wants you to heed it. What will you do?
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long