Closer to the he(art)

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time,” writer and religious scholar Thomas Merton said in his 1955 book of essays, No Man is an Island.

I started to think about the relationship of art to humanity recently because I was trying to figure out why I was profoundly sad over the death of a musician and writer I had never met.

Since my early 20s, there’s been one band for me: the Canadian trio Rush. When I got word on Jan. 10 that the band’s drummer and lyricist Neil Peart had died, I was really upset. Like what-the-hell-is-wrong -with-me type of upset. That was followed by a mourning period that hasn’t ended yet.

I found out through social media I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. I read hundreds of tributes and you couldn’t miss the common thread. The lyrics Neil wrote spoke to them on a deeply emotional level. I can tell you that if you were (are) an introverted misfit, one who never felt like they quite belonged, who spent a lot of time alone with their noses in books, you related strongly to the words.

Art plays a critical role in our lives — it comforts and heals; it creates community; and it helps us learn about ourselves. That can be forgotten in the era of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education, but where the arts are concerned, it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, and it shouldn’t be.

Think about your own life and its relationship to the arts. The movie you saw last weekend, the book you read, the music you streamed while at the gym. All of those endeavors required artists — singers, writers, actors — creative people collaborating to entertain, inform and connect you to your senses. Art brings joy and it brings understanding.

While we must have an educational system that teaches the skills to navigate the 21st century economy, we must also encourage and support our young painters, dancers,
visual artists and musicians. We need to send the message that artists are just as important as engineers to our society and that your value as a person does not correspond to the number of zeroes on your paycheck. Parents of artists worry their kids won’t be able to support themselves through their art. But I can tell you that no matter what your child is interested in, if it makes them happy, long-term success will follow.

I hesitate to think what my world would be like if Neil’s parents dissuaded him from following his path. His lyrics — and later his books — connected me to a world I never imagined, one full of big ideas and lofty ideals. As a young writer, I sought out his influences and knowledge on the subjects he wrote passionately about.

Most importantly, through his words, I found permission to be my deep-thinking, introverted, misfit self. That’s the influence an artist can have on a person. And perhaps why it is a loss so profoundly felt.

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