Family of the Heart


Steve Roberts color photo: stone sculpture family of three

I love to make new acquaintances after they’re dead.

I’m an obituary man.  My favorites are those that leave me feeling some long-lost brother or sister has left their body before we learned we were related and had a chance to compare notes.  Such is my response to the New York Times obituary of Robert Rauschenberg.  His presence in my family of the heart reminds me how agreeably vast and assorted this family is.  I wouldn’t bet against it including you.

I think a friend of mine once told me he went to college with “Chris Rauschenberg, the son of the artist.”  That’s about as close as I’ve come to knowing anything about the man (by name, anyway) until I read the Times’ death narrative.  Since it mentioned a 44 year-old London Sunday Telegram story hailing Mr. Rauschenberg as “the most important American artist since Jackson Pollock,” I’m sure I’ve seen plenty of his work; I just can’t say what or where.  My enchantment with art is the same as my enchantment with anything else—the flight and sounds of birds I’ll likely never know the name of, for instance.  Just the other night I saw one of the most beautiful films about big love I’ve ever watched, and you could bribe me with a hundred foot massages and I still couldn’t come up with the title.  It’s a wonder I can tell you Grandma Moses painted the Mona Lisa.

Obviously love of art is not knowledge of art.

The kinship I enjoy with Mr. Rauschenberg, therefore, emanates solely from whatever perspective we share that transcends our worldly activities.  And my understanding of that perspective is limited to the contents of a single obituary discovered during my regular scan of notables who’ve shed their need for pockets.  It’s rather fitting when you think about it.  Mr. Rauschenberg himself was a master of conjuring beauty out of what art wonks call “found objects.”  Why, if he’d been a chef we’d be calling him the czar of Lazarian Cuisine (i.e., the magic of resurrecting leftovers, named after the guy Jesus brought back to life).  I, meanwhile, say we can find the meaning of life in a grain of sand or The Nosepickers’ Ballet just as surely as we might find it in scripture or the pearls of a saint…if we’re willing to abandon all preconceptions and look deeply enough within ourselves.

Here’s a grain of sand I found in Mr. Rauschenberg’s obituary: a quote attributed to him that begins, “Anything you do will be an abuse of someone else aesthetics …”

I feel my own myriad scars; I think of the leaders, wizards and Pooh-Bahs I’ve met or heard tell of; heck, I reflect on anybody with whom I’ve shared more than a handshake and it just seems that understanding and acting on the implications of that statement defines our peace of mind and our role in the world as much as any other single factor.

Person, family, business, nation—it’s all the same so far as I can tell.  Living begins when we start our endless love affair with life’s number one question: “Who will I/we be or die trying?”  Its marrow is fire, the sacred passion deep within us to embrace the essential: Who will I be regardless of the chattering judgmental voices in my head and their cousins, the voices of society, including the people I revere the most…and fear the most?

Nietzsche said, “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

The truth of this statement is amply proven by stories from concentration camps.  But it also applies to those of us who journey only through so-called ordinary life.  What other than “purpose” or “meaning” keeps adversity in any of its countless forms from overwhelming us from time to time?  (One might say our nation’s choice after 9/11 to not mobilize around the question “Who will we be or die trying?” or more simply, “What does it mean to be an American?” is a big reason why U.S. behavior has caused our moral leadership to take a hit in the world community.)  Viktor Frankel, psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor who wrote the classic Man’s Search for Meaning said, “…a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy…”

And not someone else’s reason, but our own. Which is why the ticket to misery is making choices that follow any voice other than the voice of our own inner heart. Learning to hear and be guided by that voice just may be the essence of life.

Paramahansa Yogananda, in his Autobiography of a Yogi, one of the best-selling spiritual books of the past 100 years, writes that every life circumstance can be addressed effectively with the judicious use of a single question: Who am I?  Buddhist tradition defines a “warrior” as one who has the courage to know oneself.  Tibetan tradition calls a “warrior” one who faces his or her fears.  Indeed, without a warrior’s perseverance, quieting the small-self buzzings of limitation (those voices threatened, or “abused,” by our innate passion for meaning) can feel like trying to hear a cricket at a Rolling Stones concert.

My professional history has caused me to be asked on occasion, “What will it take for us to communicate effectively with the world?”  Over the years, the first words out of my mouth have become, “Learn to manage fear.”

Eyebrows have been known to hit the skylight in response—“fear” being the most despised four-letter word in American business, if not everywhere.

So I explain.

For individuals and institutions alike, the more we understand who we are committed to being, and the more clearly and powerfully we communicate that identity to the world, the easier it is for some people to reject us, having realized that what we’re proffering is too rich or scary or just plain unappealing to them.  Now, for the healthy company or person, this is good news.  Marketing is the art and science of establishing a heart-and-mind rapport with those one can actually serve, the exquisite fit of offer and need.  Excellent communication, a component of marketing, is respectful of its entire audience, helping those who shouldn’t be customers to say “No thanks,” just as easily as it helps those we can truly serve to say, “I want to know more.”  For an unhealthy company or person—one where the fear of rejection holds sway—such arresting, emotionally powerful, meaningful and memorable communication is impossible to create.  It’s not a mystery why so much of every kind of man-made expression deadens the soul, from TV ads to sermons.

And it’s no mystery why so much of Robert Rauschenberg’s work does the opposite, likened as it is to a St. Bernard: uninhibited and mostly good natured.  He seems to have been generally unfettered about offending anyone’s esthetics, even his own.  His perspective included:

  • “Screwing things up is a virtue.”
  • “Being correct is never the point.”
  • “Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.”
  • And, “…knowing more only encourages your limitations,” a healthy take on the deadly human tendency of being attached to what we know and the effort we put in to learn it.

From the snapshot of Mr. Rauschenberg’s obituary, I’d say there are lots of us all over the world who are related to him (and to one another) by a measure much more compelling than DNA.  Ours is that family of the heart composed of warriors from every walk of life aspiring to live with optimism and generosity of spirit.  And if, at our next reunion, each of us were wearing a sandwich board stating one view we hold about ourselves, we’d recognize Mr. Rauschenberg because his would say something like, “A lot of people try to think up ideas.  I’m not one.  I’d rather accept the irresistible possibilities of what I can’t ignore.”

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