All of us have to face the fact that we are not wholly original human beings. The words “it’s my life” may ring out from the throats of thousands of musicians, poets and activists in our culture. Whilst this statement is galvanising in its self-assertion, the simple reality is that I am not the owner of my life; I merely inherited it from my parents. I didn’t choose to have five fingers (although I’m glad I don’t have six or four). I didn’t choose to be 178cm tall (for the record I would’ve chosen to be taller if given the option). All of us must acclimatise ourselves to a certain set of genetic limitations from the outset, and yet, these limitations simultaneously confer potency on our creative enterprises.
I grew up in a musical family and soon learnt that there were kinaesthetic strictures that placed limitations on music-making. Two of the most innovative and famous jazz guitarists of the twentieth century were also two of the most physically handicapped. The music of the great jazz guitarists Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery speak to us powerfully many years after their deaths. Reinhardt was a Belgian gypsy who was born in 1910. At the age of ten, he was involved in a trailer fire and as a consequence, two of the fingers on his left-hand were burnt badly and then fused together thereafter. He was left with just his index and middle finger operational. This would be considered a serious impairment by anyone’s standards, yet did not prevent Reinhardt from producing some of the most innovative guitar work in the entire jazz corpus.
Montgomery’s ‘handicap’ was self-imposed. He did not strum the instrument with a plectrum, nor play finger-style a la classical guitarists like Andre Segovia or Julian Bream. Instead he played exclusively with the fleshy part of his thumb to produce a delicate and supple sound and in doing so, created some of the most inspired jazz guitar of the late 1950s and 1960s. It has been over fifty years since Montgomery’s death and still guitarists find inspiration in his recordings from this era. These two musicians are case studies for the necessity of resourcefulness rather than the acquisition of resources in artistic endeavours. They found a way to innovate despite (or perhaps because of) the limitations that would have stymied less creative people. History is replete with individuals like this. People who triumphed over obstacles to do what needed to be done. Perhaps the most obvious person that comes to mind is Helen Keller but in our own lifetime, one can turn to Nick Vujicic; a man born without arms or legs who has still managed to find a way to inspire people to avoid seeing themselves as victims through a career as a motivational speaker and businessman.
Abraham Joshua Heschel once made the comment that “you should live your life as if it were a work of art.” I think what he meant was something along the lines of: don’t limit the creative domain merely to poetry, music, visual arts or the things that we stereotypically consider to have creative merit. Instead, allow the sum total of your life to be the quest for the beauty, mystery and truth that characterises some of the most lauded cultural artifacts, whether Beethoven’s Ninth symphony or Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Anyone who has seen Vujicic speak knows that he is living his life as if it were a work of art.
However, living your life as an artwork requires discipline which in itself is not a particularly sexy topic. And, whilst it is essential to any successful life, discipline is not necessarily synonymous with habit. To treat your life as an artwork will require the appropriate synthesis of spontaneity and orderliness. All discipline is habitual, but most habits are not the results of discipline (nose-picking or cigarette smoking for example).
Freedom is a loaded term that will certainly mean a whole range of things to a whole range of readers. Jocko Willink, a well-known internet personality, entrepreneur and ex-Navy SEAL, named a best-selling book Discipline Equals Freedom. To most people in our culture, this title seems paradoxical, but it begs the question: What is the appropriate creative synthesis of discipline and freedom? In contemporary culture we think of freedom as meaning unfettered by rules and expectations. Perhaps the most popular ode to this kind of freedom in recent years comes from Frozen’s Elsa in the song “Let it Go”. What is the heroine letting go of? the limitations and constraints imposed on her by her responsibility towards her village and country. She intimates that she is finally free to be herself; isolated from family, community and society, she retreats into solipsism, within a castle of her own making. This is freedom from rather than freedom to and it is just the kind of freedom that is lauded on Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok and frankly, many higher education institutions.
This kind of freedom came to the fore during the Romantic movement (circa 1750–1850), most prominently in the writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778): “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains” reads the opening line of The Social Contract. From the moment children were born, Rousseau saw the demands of living in civilised society as anathema to an individual’s freedom. He looked at the crime and deprivation of the major urban areas of the time and surmised that culture and environment were the corrupting agents of an individual’s free will and autonomy. The demands of living in civil society stymied individual freedom.
We see variations on Rousseau’s arguments all the time on any number of social-economic issues under discussion. If an unfortunate individual is addicted to drugs or alcohol, inevitably it must be due to environmental factors: negative family influences or a bad neighbourhood that caused them to resort to desperate measures, a lack of government funding for education etc. Less attention is paid to the individuals’ free volition in choosing to partake in the ingestion of harmful substances. Regardless of what someone thinks of the validity of Rousseau’s ideas, no-one can deny the inestimable influence of this thinking on a whole generation of poets and writers: Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron etc., who sought liberation from the so-called strictures of religious, societal and familial orthodoxy by looking to the beauty of the natural world or the ecstasy and thrill of romantic love for inspiration.
Since Rousseau, most of us have viewed freedom as individual autonomy: “I’m free to do what I want, any old time,” as the Rolling Stones used to sing. Yet, freedom from is not an ultimate destination. The Israelites of antiquity became free from Egyptian tyranny in the wilderness, but the wilderness was not their ultimate destination.
What is the purpose of freedom and why do we valorise it the way we do? Heschel articulates it this way:
“Man is free to act in freedom and free to forfeit freedom…we may be free in employing or in ignoring freedom; we are not free in having freedom. We are free to choose between good and evil; we are not free in having to choose.”
Something that struck me as odd growing up was observing the attitudes of people who were cigarette smokers. When I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s the extent to which smoking was deleterious to physical health was common knowledge. The evidence that it contributed towards lung cancer and heart disease was almost irrefutable. Yet, this did not stop many of my peers in high school and university from habitually smoking. Of every one of these smokers, not one of them was proud of the fact that they smoked and yet every one of them would have identified as freedom-loving. This struck me as paradoxical considering that all of these friends partook in a habit that controlled them like a dictator.
Unless we learn to be captains of Montgomery-an or Reinhardt-esque resourcefulness, unless we grapple with the roadblock of self-discipline we will be stuck with the far greater tyrant; our unmitigated selves.
Michael Samild is a Christian teacher and musician with an Arts degree from UNSW dating back to the days when BA's still had some element of academic rigour and merit! He has a Graduate Diploma in Music Therapy and worked internationally in special needs schools for two years. He also earned a Graduate Diploma in Education and now teaches English at a Christian school in NSW. A traditional ‘left’ voter until around the 2013 election which saw Abbott defeat Rudd, he became a father and observed the radical destabilisation of our society and culture, growing in his conservatism and distrust of big government.
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