Despair, boredom, restlessness, fear, worry, lack of pleasure: these are conditions that have haunted so many of us during the pandemic and interfered with our feelings of joy and accomplishment. One resource that’s always available to us is our creativity.
Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author, touched on what makes art so powerful in What Is Art?
“The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. … And it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.”
Art is the passing of feeling from one human heart to another. We pass on the feelings that we have in our hearts to others.
After witnessing on TV George Floyd’s murder, I felt speechless, mute, but also compelled to “say something.” But what could I, a white woman very far removed from Mr. Floyd’s world, contribute? I did not want to appropriate a story that was not mine, and yet I was deeply unsettled and needed to find my words. The result of this inner conflict surprised me.
I don’t just write for Psychology Today. I write fiction and I am deep into work on my second novel. But my original training and background is as a poet. When George Floyd was murdered, I hadn’t been writing poetry for quite a while. And yet, something rose in me. The tension I felt to speak against violence, oppression and privilege, about victims and perpetrators, sprung forth in what became a series of fifteen new poems. They are now a section of my forthcoming book of new poems.
The poems are in the voices of women who have suffered violence, mothers who have lost children to war or disaster, women in exile, girls kidnapped by rebel forces. I felt I could get inside their skins because I know about loss too, perhaps not as dramatic a loss as in these cases, but I know I carry in my DNA the grief of ancestors and a lineage of persecution and diaspora. My novel-in-progress, The Lie of Forgetting, delves into the enduring pain of intergenerational trauma.
Empathy enabled me to write my poems. Difficult times invite us to cultivate our inherent capacity for empathy by exposing us to suffering, to feel into the pain with our entire being, and to understand that when we give these feelings form, as we do when we make art, they are redeemed from the darkness. We take what’s inside ourselves and objectify it so that we can walk around it and study it, so that we represent our private reality outside ourselves and offer it to the culture. We don’t have to “learn” empathy as much as allow ourselves to feel it.
Feeling connects us with what is most vital and powerful within us. It’s one of the ways we know we are alive, and a barometer of what matters to us. Fear, sadness, rage can be great motivators to create, but we don’t need to be embedded in catastrophic events for our creativity to flourish. We do, however, need the courage to be vulnerable to our own truths and realities.
The path forward is like a hero or heroine’s journey in which we set off into the unknown, unsteady and unsure, but with a sense of urgency. Along the way we meet demons and obstacles. Many times, we desperately want to turn back. But an unnamable faith urges us onward. When the hero or heroine attains the treasure, she returns with it to her place of origin, refreshing and renewing the culture.
To make art we first have to believe that making it matters, which is a serious and profound question in a world filled with very real, very concrete struggles. Why create art if we don’t think it matters?
In a world such as ours, might we not conclude that art is superfluous, an indulgent privilege of certain classes and populations? Might we not ask: how can my poem or my painting or my song matter in the grand scheme of things, and therefore, why should I spend time and energy in that direction? My answer is a resounding yes!
Our desire to create springs from the depth of our soul. This urge is hardwired in our chemistry. One piece of evidence for this is that, across time and cultures, some form of art has been with us since humans walked the earth.
Seventeen thousand years ago, Paleolithic people descended into caves in southwestern France, and blowing mineral pigments through tubes, painted scenes of hunting and other ritualized activities on the rock walls. The cave spaces are assumed to have been spiritual sanctuaries that were decorated with pictures of horses, oxen, birds, and people, and it may be guessed from these gestures that art’s origins are linked to a human need to document our lives and to create a sacred space for ceremonies in which we connect to the divine.
Art creates new forms and visions that help us survive. Gospel, hymns, blues, jazz were born out of the joys and tribulations of a people. In the Nazi ghettos and death camps, the persecuted made drawings and paintings, wrote poems and stories that leave a testimony of how they lived, suffered, and died. The friends and families of the disappeared in Latin America; the incarcerated, interned, and exiled in camps and gulags and on reservations; the political prisoners in China and in other Asian countries have all left us their poems and stories and paintings. The need to tell our stories and to bear witness urgently pushes us to find our voice. The personal is always political. In an interconnected universe, what happens to you influences me and everyone else – and vice versa.
The brilliant writer and thinker James Baldwin said: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in people.” What he meant is that not only are we born into a particular time in history, but we are born into a particular family with particular struggles and life experiences and backgrounds. This is our material. This is what we bear witness to and document in our stories, songs, paintings, dances.
You may be listening to this and saying, “What does this have to do with me?” Maybe it feels like you are in exile and you spend every day trying to survive in a system founded on oppression and colonization. Or maybe you say to yourself, “I’m not in a death camp. I’m not in exile. My issues are minor compared to these.” In both cases, the question remains, “Why are my work and my voice important?”
Believe me, it is.
What we all share is a desire to give form to something that has not been expressed ever before. It is our own individual stamp on the ineffable sorrows, joys, pain, anger, sufferings that compose our lives. Each one of us lives a life that contains these things and so each one of us has a unique perspective, an individual way we view the world. Our individual perspective is what composes the whole, the collective, and each of us participates as actor and witness in creating a society.
This means that in some ways, we are already prepared, and we already have the raw material to create. We come to our creative being with a personal temperament, with specific social circumstances, with specific historical circumstances, with our ancestral influences, with inclinations, and with a great deal that we don’t know about ourselves, that is, with a great deal of mystery.
Please know you already have at your disposal all the material you need. If you can allow yourself to follow your curiosity even into states that are uncomfortable, like anxiety or depression, and become the observer of them, and seek to find within them some nugget of worth, you will discover that inside these darker elements there is often a hidden treasure, a gift. This, I believe, is the deep secret of art. It is life-restoring and life-enhancing for both the creator and her or his world.
Art is a bridge to empathy, to connection with our pack. Because humans are pack animals, we suffer when we become isolated. Isolation, loneliness, despair are the breeding grounds for our darker emotions. But the act of creation is life-giving. This is the reason why writers sometimes refer to completing a book as “giving birth” or “having a new baby.”
In my own experience, the ability to focus intensely on a project provides a buffer from worry and anxiety that is so much with us during this time of uncertainty. No matter what comes of the attempt, there is satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment in the effort. Crucially, a sense of hope is restored.
Experience, that is our material, all of it, the good, bad, the ugly. What is it you will remember most about this time of the pandemic on planet Earth? What is pressing inside you to get out?
As the great jazz musician Charlie Parker once said, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”
One of my favorite things in the world is discussing with book clubs the themes of this post – creativity and empathy – as well as the themes of my novels and other posts – resilience, writing, intergenerational trauma, mother/daughter relationships, Carl Jung and Jungian therapy, dreams, and even fairy tales. If this interests you, please find my contact info here.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”