Mental and Spiritual Suffering

June 14, 2013

Mental and spiritual suffering seems to be part of the deal for many creative individuals - a defining trait that tends to be accepted as part of the creative personality.  I perceive the accompanying high levels of alcoholism and drug abuse among creative people as a symptom of various mental and spiritual afflictions that contribute to this suffering.  It seems it begins early in our lives when we find it hard to learn to cope with the hypersensitive awareness that is the inherent mode we live in.  We grapple with how to balance those feelings while managing our compulsion to create.  We quickly learn that creating is largely undervalued by society until we can produce a financial justification for our work. We get used to turning our back on a society that would rather field a football team than support academics or the arts. And in doing so we turn our back on the institutions we have at our disposal that might help ease our suffering on a personal level. 


We can experience a road block when someone recommends we put our trust in anyone or anything else.  A person who has been hurt in the past is apt not to trust so easily in the future.  And so simply because we have chalked these institutions up as useless, ineffective or even harmful, we completely discount the help they could provide us now or in the future.  We throw whole denominations out without ever setting foot in their churches, we discount medical advice without fully understanding it, we talk about the waste and abuse of charities rather than seeing the good they are doing despite it.  Many of us would rather choose to go down the well-known road of loneliness and self-sufficiency than risk opening ourselves to more harm and disillusion for the hope of something better, or go to the trouble of following a path that is harder to walk than the one we are on.  As ego-driven individuals we creatives tend to need to be right about everything, so we utilize our intellect to build elaborate justifications complete with case studies and exhibits that we trot out at parties, gallery openings and coffee shops in a bid to bolster our own perception that we know best, that most people are suckers and that we would rather live the “truth” than be happy (“truth” being what we know to be right, without question.)    


Initially I thought that perhaps it was a "hyper-feeling" brain that led creatives to drugs, alcohol, loneliness and an early grave.  Getting numb seems like a solid fix at first because we can “turn down the volume” on a brain that is constantly stimulated, agitated and frustrated.  However it almost always ends badly as we have seen time and again; to name a few see Poe, Arbus, Pollock, Hemingway, Cobain… to say nothing of the anonymous millions of those who have suffered and left us early... the list goes on and on.  Clearly, reaching the pinnacle of these beautiful people’s chosen art was not enough for them.  Or maybe they reached the pinnacle despite their broken hearts.  However it happened, we know from their example that the best we can do in the arts is simply not enough to keep us from self-destruction. 


What I’m getting to is wandering into the realm of Faith, so you can take it or leave it because to write about this I have to make statements which frankly can’t be fully backed up by logic.  I believe we are created by our God, and that the creation of things; music, dance, photographs etc. is something we all have within us as a reflection of our Creator’s love of life - of bringing something out of nothing.  We are in a good state of mind when we are spiritually in tune with our Creator, because we are more likely to live in the way God intended.  I believe the separation of a person’s spirit from their Creator’s spirit is the source of most of our problems, creative frustration notwithstanding.  I believe we are allowed to go our own way if we choose.  In fact I think the case can be made that we are not denied the gifts we’ve been given whether we recognized how they came to us in the first place or not, nor does one have to recognize God to live a moral life. 


See, I could be dead wrong about all this.  We could be all alone in the universe and the world is a freak meaningless accident…and on top of that the Man won’t let us sell our art without selling out, and oh yeah how can I be creative when I have to do time at a day job in a cubicle?  Yes, I can find the negative as easily as the next guy if I put my mind to it.  But here’s why I try not to do that and what I do know to be true:  When I start my day on my knees, and when I put down the camera and look outwards to others to try to find a way to be useful - if only in a small way - I get an energy that is unequaled for me in any other pursuit.  And here’s the unexpected payoff: this serenity plays into my desire to create and I become more productive as an artist, not less! 


I have learned from looking around me.  You want to see a group of happy people?  I would avoid the galleries – go find some folks working for a non-profit rebuilding houses after a hurricane or a flood, or a church group feeding the homeless, or a person taking the time to mow their elderly neighbor’s grass.  These are some happy people because to paraphrase Christ; in losing their lives, their lives have been gained.  He didn’t mean we need to kill ourselves, but that if we can give of the things that matter most in our lives, we will get back in the things we need most.  In other spiritual circles it’s known as yin and yang, or karma, or for you atheists just mark it down as “what comes around goes around.”  Call it what you will, but while forgetting one’s self is hard to do, when we do it we may find it’s a potent antidote to fear, anger, depression and loneliness, the things which work to choke our creativity and rob us of peace.


Artists love to perceive ourselves as unique individuals, but I’m here to tell you that the “suffering artist” cliché’ is hardly very original.  We should love what we do as creatives and continue to solve problems and raise questions with our work, innovate, teach and celebrate beauty and craft.  We should continue to produce whether or not there is financial payoff or incentive.  But the mental and spiritual suffering bit – we don’t have to do it.  If we find ourselves constantly angry and frustrated as an artist, maybe it’s time to ask ourselves if trying something different might not bring some different results in our state of mind.  It may be time to return to Source and ask how we might be useful, and allow art and creativity to take its rightful place in our lives – as something we do among other more important things.


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