You may recall that I recently wrote that no one can be epitomized in just one word. I was wrong about that and ask that you forgive me my short-sightedness for authoring any such claim.
You see, last week Jean and I went to a Willie Nelson concert. As he performed, a man unique in many ways, there was no quelling my realization that we were in the presence of a true American icon. That’s the word for him. Understand that I still believe it takes a lot of time, thought, and observation to understand who anyone really is, to explore the folds and creases of anyone’s life, particularly a life woven into a fabric as richly diverse as Willie Nelson’s.
But there he stood before us, a true original. Did you know that Willie has written over 2,500 songs, including monster hits like Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”? Although on the far side of his eighth decade among us, he still plays between 150 and 200 shows a year! Yes, he had a run-in with the IRS that received lots of press coverage, but he is a man of tremendous generosity to those in need. On the night we saw him perform, he did not leave the edge of the stage until he had signed every autograph request–and there we many indeed!
The term icon covers a lot of territory. One dictionary says an icon is a symbol, a representative object or person that may come to be regarded as having a special status as representative of, or important to, or loved by, a particular group of people. In our pop culture the term is tossed around with unfortunate frequency–often to seemingly clueless recipients of the 15 minutes of fame artist Andy Warhol so famously prophesied for each.
Certainly there are iconic inanimate objects—the Campbell’s soup can, the Coke bottle, the Empire State Building, the Pyramids, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower–you can add lots more. All of these items mean something important, something tacitly agreed upon by a particularly large group of people. But I’m more interested in the mysteries of the animate world–more specifically, of our species, so I want to focus my comments on iconic individuals.
The really neat thing about iconic figures is that barometric swings in cultural orthodoxy, societal beliefs, or moral norms don’t chip away much on their status. Will there be a day when Mother Teresa is not an iconic representation of God’s compassion? That Will Shakespeare is not an iconic representation of man’s deepest imagination? That W.A. Mozart is not an iconic representation of golden, antic musical genius cut short by
death? Iconic fame is frozen in time. The lives of our icons stand for qualities we continue to need to SEE before us to live by, qualities that endure generational gaps many canyons wide.
Yesterday I read a fascinating article about a man named Leonardo Urena. Mr. Urena lives in Napa, California, and has grown vegetables of monstrous proportions. Recently he took first place in the “Great Pumpkin Contest” with a pumpkin weighing 1,685 pounds! Yes, the vegetable is genetically engineered, and no, I am not about to nominate Mr. Urena or his Pumpkin for iconic status. But when asked why he puts forth the effort (and imagination?) to grow these things, he said, “I just want to show people something they haven’t seen in the past.” If you think about it, that is what iconic figures–the greatest among us–have done throughout history. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and
Abraham Lincoln faced down fear of death and credible threats on their lives to breathe life into salutary beliefs that survived the hate of an assassin’s bullet. And their reasonable and generous beliefs have given us images, icons, that survive to this day, helping us find the moral courage to follow their actions, psychological and material.
If you examine Willie Nelson’s life story, you find that he shares a quality that comes forth in iconic figures who make a contributing difference. As opposed to the monstrous icons, symbolic of horrific evil loosed upon the human race. Adolf Hitler may be an iconic figure, but he was a vile moral coward, representative of human qualities we deplore in ourselves and work always to sublimate and control, turning that evil energy to good.
Willie Nelson stood up to the traditional assumption that we should hang onto worldly at all cost, revere the status quo, and hold as a core belief the avoidance of personal risk. After arriving in Nashville 1960 Nelson recognized as an accomplished songwriter, but the “conventional” country and western sound that’s the hallmark of Nashville did not suit him. He needed to forge his own content and style—his own sound. So he left Nashville and moved to Texas. Once there he came upon other performers who did not follow C&W canons–performers like Waylon Jennings. Eventually Nelson’s distinct style as a performer and songwriter brought him a degree of fame accorded to few. And today we see in his performances the characteristic that Nelson shares with other much-admired iconic figures, fearlessness in the pursuit of their beliefs and dreams.
One final point. While aspirations are essential to our well-being, it is fruitless in
the extreme to set as a life goal attaining iconic stature. You cannot do it, you cannot make it happen. The process that over time draws consensus to one’s iconic status is in many respects as mysterious as the course of an underground river—it’s not subject to man’s
plans. But there is no denying, and you can accept this as an article of faith, that if you fearlessly pursue your dreams, stand firm on your beliefs, and say “No” like Willie did when that’s the best policy, you will achieve success of unimagined measure.