Pain is one of lifes unfortunate constants. Even in the quest for a life well lived, there is not a single person who can say they have not been faced with a measure of suffering. There are also very few I imagine, who can say that that lifes disappointments did not carry with it, at least some positive effects. During my time away from social media (a genuine 8 month break, not a cute little weekend hiatus) I became immersed in the idea of how pain influences our ability to create. It has resonated with me in particularly moving ways lately as I spent time studying the various artists, speakers and composers who have inspired me over the years.
In the face of deep disappointment and vulnerability, most people can agree that they feel a profound level of misunderstanding, loneliness and stress that seems in the moment, insurmountable. Turns out, most of the worlds famous artists felt that way too. Naturally, suffering doesn’t really feel like an opportunity for strength, and even for creative inspiration… but surprisingly, there is clear evidence dating back into history, that our darkest moments can often be the source of some of our most brilliant achievements and inspirations.
The way we choose to look at things is probably the most powerful force we have in life. Perception is everything, and whatever we chose to see in the moment, and whatever message we chose to take from our circumstances, has the power to alter our life in significant ways. To change the way we think is arguably the most daunting challenge we will ever face, and to address and acknowledge our own pain or disappointment is very often an uncomfortable task. Our mind isn’t made up of building blocks we can touch and see and restructure to our liking. It’s more like a dark maze that must be navigated blindly, and that can be difficult with years of learned behaviour and misinformation to stumble over.
Being alone with our thoughts, particularly in the wake of trauma or discomfort, may be a terrifying prospect, but it is the most essential step we can take in reshaping our life again. Much of the emptiness, anxiety and stress that haunt us is simply a back log of prior hurt that we tried to push deep into the dark recesses of our mind. I’ve certainly experienced this myself and I can wholeheartedly agree that we start to lose our ability to see and feel beautiful things if there is no outlet, and the mind becomes coarse and dull as it ruminates on its own misery and boredom.
The truth of the matter is that our finest moments are most likely to be revealed when we are feeling unhappy, unfulfilled and deeply uncomfortable. Ludwig Van Beethoven had a life of tumult, childhood abuse and alcohol addiction. Further, he developed deafness in his prime composing years which to most people, would be the final nail in the coffin for a musical career. But even through all that he managed to produce the most internationally recognized compositions ever written (Exhibit A: Symphony No. 5 in C minor). Grant Achatz, a world famous chef in Chicago, was also faced with his own ‘beethoven moment’ when aggressive tongue cancer prevented him from being able to taste his own food therefore forcing him rely on his sous chefs to help him create his artful dishes. Through that effort he still managed to become (and remain) one of the most highly acclaimed chefs of today. Take Van Gogh, one of the worlds most famous ‘tortured artists’ who dealt with debilitating anxiety, absinthe addiction, and constant seizures. Suffering gave him insight, and that insight, in turn, gave the world a new kind of art called Post-Impressionism. From Mozart to Schubert, or the writings of Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde… there is evidence of how a difficult life and tormented mind can often have remarkable outcomes. Today we having examples like Steve Jobs and Oprah to remind us of how incredibly purposeful and influential we can become even if our past is rife with struggle. While society still favours the ambitious and the positive thinkers, it’s the artists and influencers who create through deep and dark disappointment that I believe hold the most valuable lessons of survival for us.
Great art is always born from an idea, and that idea can be intellectual or visceral; it can be translated through a painting, a poem, a musical piece or through movement and rhythm. The method doesn’t matter… but what is important to note is that all artists create out of the same basic desire to communicate. Art is essentially a visual map of someones thought process and experiences, and the desired result is through the viewer having a moment where they say to themselves “this makes sense to me”. Art simply opens the gates to community and creativity by inviting us to acknowledge what we feel and channel those experiences into something that can be seen, touched and tasted. Instead of suppressing and burying experiences, there is a way for it to come out and I suppose, sit safely apart from us, contained in a canvas or a series of words.
To understand that we are not alone in the difficult process of life, is perhaps the most liberating and universal lesson to acknowledge. Once we see this truth, we transcend it. Once we realize none of us get out of it alive, we settle into an understanding that yes… is a little bit disenchanting, but also enormously relieving. Ultimately, this doesn’t mean we should strive to enjoy and appreciate life’s disappointments simply in the name of art. It certainly isn’t ideal that we drive ourselves into an early grave through drug addiction, and stress related illness. Perhaps the fatalist tone of this post may strike a nerve in some, and I certainly don’t wish to express that suffering is the only way to create profound and meaningful things. All I wish to put forward is that sometimes, in our sorrows and our search for the meaning in our lowest moments, we may find ourselves stumbling upon a idea or a thought that has the power to draw community inward if we let it out, and then through that renewed human connection perhaps also give ourselves a chance to heal. In a society that seems entirely determined never to acknowledge the propensity for us all to become and feel weak, I simply think it is important to recognize that creation is a reflection of humanity, and that deep pain and vulnerability has an established history of producing some of the worlds greatest and most profound works.