I met someone recently who knows how to live.
You know the type: self-possessed, confident, the kind of person who energizes a room. The kind of person who is alive to everything around them, who makes everyone they focus their attention on feel they could do more, they could be more. A natural-born leader who brings out the best in everyone without any apparent effort. Apparently fearless, they inspire by example, making our deepest concerns seem petty in the face of sheer living.
There is, I believe, an art to living. An art of living. Like a great painter, some people approach life as their canvas, pulling together deliberate action and tight attention to detail here with a carefree sloppiness over there, creating a balanced and, in the end, entirely pleasing composition. Like the sculptor, they are always looking for potential form hidden under the seemingly shapeless mass of lived experience. And like a musician, they find ways of merging perfectly their own self-expression with forms that have been handed down to them and to others might seem formulaic and routine.
I don’t know if the sheer talent for living can be learned; it takes more than a few painting classes to develop the kind of spark we find in the work of Picasso, Vermeer, or Chagall. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from them, just as the beginning artist learns from studying the work of the great masters.
Here’s what I learned from this recent encounter with a true artiste of life, and what might help us all bring a touch of artfulness to our own living.
1. Pay attention.
Curiosity kills cats, they say, but in people, it is what makes us truly alive. Look deeply at the world of everyday things around you, and wonder. When you face the world with open eyes, you discover mysteries everywhere.
Most importantly, pay attention to people. This is my hardest lesson, actually – as a college instructor, I meet so many new people every semester, and I have such a hard time keeping them all straight in my head. The outward manifestation of this is that I struggle to learn names, even after 15 weeks of classes; the deeper concern is that I don’t learn all I could from my students, and in the end that’s the first job of a teacher.
When we pay attention to people, really pay attention, it brings forth something in them that’s amazing. This is something I learned as an anthropologist – people love to tell their stories. All they need is someone to really listen to them. And when people give you their stories, it enriches your own story.
2. Surround yourself with inspiring people and inspiring things.
An artful life is a life that embraces creativity, and creativity doesn’t emanate pure and whole from within but emerges from our engagement with the world around us. The poet Ezra Pound said “the artist is the antenna of the race”, meaning that the “stuff” of art is not what is inborn in the artist but what they pick up from the society around them, the “waves” that emanate from their culture in going about its business.
There is a common saying that if you want to be the best at anything, surround yourself with people who are better than you. It is the constant challenge of striving to reach their heights that drives us to innovate, to create, and ultimately to master our field, whether that be art, invention, business, love, or anything else.
I know ‘tis the season to decry all things materialistic, but just as we’re inspired by people we are also inspired by things. For some, it’s fine art; for others, folk or indigenous art; for still others, the simple lines of modern design or of a Zen garden. In my case, it’s books – the sheer physical presence of them. I respond in an almost physical way to books, feeling in their tight bindings and crisp pages a kind of calmness that is, I suppose, the clean channel the artist gets his orher ideas on.
3. Capture your dreams.
I wonder how many of us go through life without ever reaching any of our dreams solely because we’ve never made an effort to figure out exactly what they are. That is, we avoid the kind of self-examination and purposeful imagining needed to pinpoint the things we want most out of life – and so we can never really chase after them.
I was chatting with a writer recently who, among other things, helps clients write profiles for personals sites. (That’s a niche I’d never even imagined existing, but apparently there’s quite a demand for it!) Writing profiles is, for most part, the most significant barrier to finding a good match, and if you think about it, that’s true all over the web, not just on dating sites. Take a look at the “People I’d Like to Meet” section of most people’s MySpace profiles – people just don’t know. “Cool, interesting people.” Well, of course, but what makes someone cool and interesting to you?
When this kind of ignorance of self infects even a person’s dating profile, you have to wonder. I mean, the choice of a mate is arguably one of the most important choices you’ll ever make in your life – can it really be true that the average person has absolutely no idea of what they’d like that person to be like?
Knowing what you want to attain is the first step to attaining it. That’s not to say you can’t be flexible, but if you can’t tie your goals to deep-rooted dreams and desires, you’ll never have the energy to attain them or, if you do manage to accomplish them, for them to have much meaning. And meaning is the fuel of the artful life.
4. Be appreciative.
In his later years, Kurt Vonnegut was fond of describing his Uncle Alex who, after a particularly fine meal or while watching an especially lovely sunset, would sit back and exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
That kind of conscious recognition of the comforting, pleasing, or otherwise satisfying moments in life goes a long way. It is, I think, what gives prayer its power for those who thank the powers that be, whatever they happen to believe in, for the little bounties that make up their day-to-day lives. (I say this as an entirely non-religious person – you don’t have to be religious to recognize the positivity that prayer brings to the lives of its adherents.)
Appreciating the world around you is the key to dwelling comfortably within it, even as you strive to attain your wildest dreams. Recognizing the value around you now is, in a way, the engine that drives our dream-chasing – for what is a dream except a desire to have more of the goodness we recognize around us? Which is perhaps why those who are driven by dissatisfaction with their everyday lives rarely find happiness no matter how outwardly successful they manage to become – they’re always running away from something worse instead of towards something better.
Towards artful living
I haven’t lived my life as artfully as I might have wished. But I want to. The lessons above are thoughts I’ve pulled from observing the people around me who seem to live their lives with a flair I’ve only experienced in snatches.
Who have you known who has lived their lives with the panache of an artist attacking his or her canvas or a musician calling forth a melody from a chaotic flurry of noises? What lessons have you learned from them? Let’s talk about the art of living in the comments!
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