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Thursday
Sep292011

Making a Living

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

"Hate was just a failure of imagination."
—Graham Greene

“Re-appropriate” is a word that I stole from my friend David Dark. He'd stolen it from a guy named Jeff Tweedy. It's a good word to steal. In fact, of all the words I've stolen in my lifetime I feel the least remorse for lifting this one. Re-appropriate: to seize and reassign. Its very definition encourages a theft of sorts. I suppose all of language works like that: taking anonymous words and making them our own.

This enlightened practice of re-appropriation is unique to the human experience: we adapt within our situation to make the most of it. All other creatures are defined by their innate abilities, mostly untaught. A worm is not taught how to crawl. A chameleon is not taught how to change colors. A rabbit, a horse, a spider — these creatures are defined by themselves and their intrinsic giftings. We human beings are not like this: we bend, we learn, we invent, we change. Humanity has been making herself up all along. Making life. Making a living.

I would like to re-appropriate the phrase "making a living" to mean something larger than accumulating net worth in an online bank account. I'd like to suggest that ATM receipts and mortgage payments have very little to do with living or life or making life worth living. In my personal struggle to make a living, I've found that true success has very little to do with income or comfort. In fact, it seems to me that inconvenience, hardship, and discomfort are my best teachers. It's as though these horrible, wonderful moments where I realize my own limitations are almost exclusively the only ones that matter. So when I'm brave enough, I chase these awkward moments down. I write songs about them. I put my scattered thoughts online. Heck, I even seek therapy from time to time. Love, dreams, confessions, God, women — these are dreadful, awe-inspiring mysteries to me. They put a funny taste in my mouth. They give me scrapes and scars. And stories.

The best stories often come from inconvenient and uncomfortable places.

Like a newborn child, real life comes out painfully, awkwardly, delicately. As a pearl is formed only when the oyster is agitated with sand, the most important moments in my life were born out of friction. The art comes from the awkward ache. The knot in my stomach usually teaches me more than comfort ever could. The sculptor's chisel carves away at the block to bring something new into being. In the same way, we hammer away at the world we're given to bring something new into being. We re-appropriate the past and present to create the future — breath by breath.

We are making our living on a dying planet, born into a world of contingencies. Our world is torn to shreds by the greed of men, the intolerance of our times, and the wars that rage on in the world around us. Every day our bodies are decaying. On the day of our birth, our death becomes an eventuality.

The world we've been given is under the dark shadow of these struggles. We're born into the fight. It's as though we're armed only with a dream. So it's no surprise that our hopes are dulled on the battlefield of institutionalized cynicism. In this world of death and taxes we might even begin to question whether dreams are appropriate. Against the backdrop of despair, we are tempted to abandon the struggle of hope and accept dead cash instead. We're tempted to believe that "the real world" could never be anything other than it is.

But isn't "the real world" largely what we humans have made it? Let us remind ourselves that the "financial security" that we are slaving for is anything but secure. Let's remember that this peace of mind recently went bankrupt. Yes, these supposedly stalwart investment institutions were bailed out, but by a government that faces an insurmountable debt. Let's take it even further and recall that none of us has any control or security over the day of our birth or death. And in this context I believe that "making a living" cannot be tied to the paycheck alone. Rather we make the real world of tomorrow today. Moment by blessed moment, we're making a living.

To make this kind of living takes incredible creativity. To see the limitless possibility in the present moment takes a wild imagination. And it's not just artists that need this untamed ingenuity.

A good teacher is creative. A good computer programmer is creative. A good mom is creative. A good lawyer looks creatively beyond the contingencies of injustice and works to bring a more virtuous existence into being.

In fact, the argument could be made that a human being is most God-like when she is most creative, ingeniously crafting the true and the beautiful out of the confines of the present tense. Remixing tomorrow out of the raw materials of today. Re-appropriating a dream into reality. It's not just vagabond surfers who chase down preposterous dreams of doing what they love — humanity has been doing this all along. Flying without wings? Landing on the moon? Recording and amplifying sound? Yes. We invent, we progress, and we make it up as we go along. Does it sound like a swindle, like cheating the system? Does it sound outrageous? It absolutely is! But that's what making a living is, my friends — it's scandalous! And the outrageous souls willing to risk failure might be the only ones who are truly making a living. For better or worse they are defining the world our children will inherit.

This world is a hand-me-down. It was given to us by our parents — women and men much like ourselves. Human beings in love, human beings rejected, human beings hungry, restless, apathetic and hopeful: ever-changing, ever-adapting. Yes, the human soul is a bundle of conflicting desires. You want peace, but you love excitement. You hate math, but you want to graduate. You love your parents, but they drive you crazy. Even our hopes are at odds with each other. The rent? The relationship? The career? The vacation? Our dreams rarely line up. It's messy stuff, but these are the raw materials that life has given you.

You had no choice as to where your journey begins, but the choice is available to you now. You could argue that you didn't choose to be born, that there are factors of your existence over which you have little or no control. It's true, these are the contingencies we were born into. Your heart, your bones, your soul, your sexuality — these were given to you. Given to you as a painter is given a canvas and a brush. Given to you as a sculptor is given a block of marble. St. Francis of Assisi said that "He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist." Your artistry? Your craft? You are making a living.

Which is to say that you are the art. Your words, your haircut, your clothes, your actions—these display your unique blend of past and present, desire and lack thereof, insecurity and purpose. You are the painting, and everyday you paint yourself and the world around you. Every moment is a canvas waiting to come to life. The walls of this planet and the walls of your heart are still available to graffiti artists everywhere. There's still room for redemptive, honest, hopeful colors. You put your brush to canvas with every decision, with every breath. We are the human race. We are the re-appropriators. But none of us creates out of nothing. Human creation is always re-appropriation. Trying to put beauty into form.

Tom Morrello once said that "Music is like sausage." He was killing time on-stage in a club called Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. We were halfway through the encore trying to figure out a cover tune that none of us really knew. It was a mild form of chaos onstage. So as we switched instruments and tried to work it out, Tom told this parable to the patient crowd, "Music is like sausage. You love the final product but sometimes you don't want to see how it's made." It's one of my favorite stories to tell. I love finding something beautiful within the bizarre. Grace within contingency, as Gregory Wolfe might say.

Because after all, that's what music is. That's what life is. Re-appropriating the scraps we have at hand in an attempt to create something truly magnificent. Crafting timeless beauty out of our own temporal specific circumstances. My friends who practice yoga have a saying: "Fake it till you make it." Maybe that's what humans do best: we make it up as we go along.

You want to know the meaning of life? This is your highest calling: You are called into the dynamic co-creation of the cosmos. This breath is your canvas and your brush. These are the raw materials for your art, for the life you are making. Nothing is off limits. Your backyard, your piano, your paintbrush, your conversation, Rwanda, New Orleans, Iraq, your marriage, your soul. You're making a living with every step you take. So when you make a living, do not merely make money. Why settle for cash when joy is on the line? You feel a thrill when you dance, when you sing, when you finish your poem; even when you sweep the room, you see order pressing back against the chaos. So when you create, never settle for making a living — at least not the way that the world might define that phrase. When you make a living, you are speaking a new world into existence. You are creating grace within the confines. You are co-signing God's blank checks.

Photo: Andy Baron

Jon Foreman is the lead singer and guitarist of Switchfoot. Many of Jon's formative and well-known songs were written and recorded at the Art House in Nashville. He and his wife, Emily, are much loved Art House guests and friends.

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Reader Comments (3)

Question: How many people does it take to change the world?
Answer: One

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

Insightful for the creative minded. Being co-creators with God always lifts me to the cosmos. I enjoyed this article, keep up the good work(s)

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael McNee

This was a timely reminder for our family of four trying to "make a living" in music. Thank you for the fresh perspective, and the inspiration to focus on what really matters - not just the tangible rewards that our families get so nervous about us not having. We do our best to live fully with what we make and what is given to us. It is a hard journey of learning.

October 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi Bird

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