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The Challenge

We’re midway into the new-year holidays sometimes called the Days of Awe, and so midway into the t’shuvah—self-accounting and reorientation—process this spiritual technology enables and demands. I love many things about High Holy Day services: the beauty of the liturgy and music, the communal and individual invitation to learn from experience, correct mistakes, and set a new course. Sitting in Rosh HaShanah services on Wednesday and Thursday, I was reminded of another: that they also comprise the longest stretch of time I regularly go without making something: just being, allowing awareness to grow, and noticing what arises.

I’ve been asked to offer a teaching on Yom Kippur, focusing on reorientation to what is uniquely our individual essence, rather than the sort of outward goal or expectation so often worn like a mask. This teaching from the Slonimer Rebbe (Shalom Noach Berezovsky) is my text:

Before anything else, each of us needs to meditate well and dig deeply until we comprehend the unique and special task for which each of us came down in this world…. We are given signs by which to discern it, and sometimes we know it only because it is the most difficult thing we could ever undertake.”

The challenge arising for me now, as I contemplate this provocative question—”What is demanded of me?”—turns on my personal magic words this season: demand and provoke. “Demanding” has recently been applied to my character by true and enduring friends; “provocative” is the word most frequently used to describe my talks and writings. (There are others too, I hasten to add: click around the Web pages under my main Talks and Workshops heading for testimonials.) So I am sitting this week with what it means to be demanding and provocative. I hope that writing to you about it will help me figure that out.

Both words have a double edge. A demanding task is painstaking. A demanding teacher requires more of students than is typical. A demanding boss is never satisfied. A provocative work of art incites new or challenging thoughts and feelings. A provocative gaze is arousing. Saying to someone, “You’re just being provocative” means more or less this: “Stop trying to pick a fight.”

I don’t see myself as belligerent or commanding, and if my friends see me that way, they haven’t said so. The words I more typically use when I examine myself are things like “relentless” and “stimulating.” But I see that this is a distinction without a difference: whatever words used to describe it, the shoe fits.

I like being demanding and provocative. “It is true,” the great James Baldwin said exactly 50 years ago, “that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace.” I also like these qualities because they are required to describe and assist the really big changes—at once individual and collective—needed to realign our world with full human potential:

  • To recognize and respect culture as the crucible in which we work out shared meaning, identity, and social values (the main topic of the book I am currently writing);
  • To radically redefine work, so that we agree to spend more of our commonwealth on creating social opportunity, healing the planet, embodying justice tempered by love, making beauty and meaning, and nurturing diverse, harmonious community—and far less on war and punishment;
  • To use emergent knowledge of our minds’ workings to become aware of and release our own defensiveness and reactivity, modulating our tendency to racism, class prejudice, and many other forms of scapegoating; and
  • To enlarge our idea of a humane society to place the realms of body, mind, emotion, and spirit on equal footing, allowing an embrace of all these worlds to shape our social arrangements.

I don’t pretend this is all that needs doing. But when I sit this week in my process of t’shuvah, of realignment, these underlying changes appear to me as clearly as if they’d been inscribed on stone tablets. I see them as enabling all the rest.

What I don’t like about the categories “demanding” and “provocative” is what other people sometimes do with them: use them to corral whatever leads to questioning that might disturb the peace, because the answers threaten a sense of security that is inevitably false.

I see the present moment, for all of its terrors and challenges, as a time of great opportunity. Just as a gateway to a new life may open for the addict who awakens on a strange floor, pockets empty, bridges burned, we now face the opportunity of a lifetime.

I love writing, but just as much, I love giving talks and workshops. This past year has been wonderful for me in terms of public speaking, because I have been able to respond to a growing hunger for new ideas among people who have finally concluded that the old way is not working. Speaking to a group pulls me out of my solitary engagement with words into dialogue with others. It pushes me to reach for new ways to tell important stories that will speak to listeners; and gives me a chance to test new ideas for resonance. When I am working on a writing project that stretches me (my new book is the most exciting such challenge I’ve ever faced), talking to people about my insights and ideas provides necessary nourishment, amplifying what is of value, and guiding me toward next steps. Many of my speaking gigs have been on campuses: I love the thrill of engaging students with essential questions of ethics and impact, of seeing their minds open to embrace new possibilities.

Both writing and speaking (along with consulting) are part of my patchwork livelihood, a familiar pattern in many artists’ lives. Through fees, I buy my own time for two things: to write; and for pro bono work with people and organizations lacking material resources, those I value greatly and most wish to help.

This way of living definitely develops resilience, resourcefulness, and the ability to tolerate a level of financial insecurity that might make others run screaming. For someone who values control over one’s own time as much as I do, when it works, it’s perfect. But in the current nonprofit economy, it’s another kind of stretch. Thus, when I sit during this week of reorientation with what it means to be demanding and provocative, I hear two voices. One says I am an impassioned visionary who works hard and never gives up; the other says I am a grandiose person who thinks the world owes her a living. When they sing in harmony, I realize they are both right. It takes more than a lick of grandiosity to hold fast to one’s “unique and special task” in times like these.

As I sit in this week of realignment, of t’shuvah, I see that I have pitched my tent in a milieu that immeasurably complicates my task. Right now, I am thinking about ways to expand my audience beyond art worlds. (Can you help? Please email me.) You see, “creativity” and “innovation” are the magic words there, which makes sense: artists are all about creativity and innovation. But institutions are inherently conservative. When I talk to an audience of arts administrators or funders, the excitement is often palpable. As individuals, people naturally love the sensual and intellectual pleasure of expansive thinking. But after the applause dies down, the first question is almost inevitably this one: “Can you tell me someplace that has been tried successfully before?”

It’s an understandable question: our culture is exceptionally prey to the distortion that sees mistakes as shameful and valorizes caution over risk; we are now paying quite a price for our failure to realize that, in truth, mistakes are the only path to learning. So the orientation to risk-avoidance may be understandable, but in practice, it has a remarkably damaging effect. Mostly, when arts resource-providers say they want innovation, they really mean they want to be just one step ahead of the pack. Whatever has already been done has presumptive value, even when realistic evaluation would say otherwise. And in the language shaped by this distortion, “provocative” has a special meaning: Very interesting, but too risky to take seriously.

This is bad, my friends. It means tons of money and energy are wasted trying to come up with the foolproof formula—to cite just one example among many, foundations’ infatuation with “best practices,” logic models,” and other lucky charms against dreaded mistakes—for urgent, essential work that, being about human stories, can never be successfully systematized or quantified.

It makes me sad personally, of course, because I dislike being corraled in the “too risky” category when I am certain that what I am saying is worth taking seriously. But even more, it’s the waste of opportunity that saddens me, because my personal code, my “unique and special task,” has to do with seeing vast potential in the human project, with continuing to see it despite the concommitant risk of vast disappointment. And this is what I see now, straight up: it is time for the big t’shuvah, the collective acts of reorientation and alignment that can break the chain of causality and save the human project from self-destruction; and they probably won’t happen without visionary enablers and underwriters with ample courage for risk.

Just lately, I perceive some signs that beyond art worlds, attention is being paid to this moment. For example, I am chairing two sessions devoted to culture as the crucible for change at the annual Bioneers conference October 14th-16th, which brings together scientists, new tech people, green activists and businesses, social entrepreneurs, and organizers. Or, when I wrote recently about the creative jobs plan we need, quite a few forward-thinking economists picked up on the notion of cultural infrastructure, responding with enthusiasm (google “Infrastructure has another meaning, too,” to see many of the links).

They say the gates are open this time of year, so that blessings can flow more freely between worlds. Here is the blessing I want for 5772: that the world will receive what such a demanding, provocative person as I has to offer; and that I will be granted the means to continue making my offering, as long as I am privileged to draw breath.

Blessings for a sweet year, dear readers, filled with love, livelihood, connection, and well-being; wide awake, aware, and aligned with your deepest truth.

Right now, more than ever, we need to “Say It.” Here’s the glorious Bettye LaVette singing that 5 Royales song at Steve Cropper’s Lincoln Center tribute concert, and here’s the original.