How do you enjoy art without feeling
You are afraid of grief.
You cannot bear to listen to trauma
and refuse to note its signs
not even when it’s clear, and bleeding, and
You repress it, and pretend
it is not there.
No better way to silence the broken soul
and misread distress-
dismissing empathy as. just.
You don’t know how
to look pain in the deadeye – how to
Stare it down
to the ground, and no longer be
its immobilised husk now turned into
beneath your foot
and you rise larger yet, still-
Beneath your cloak of joy
are you whole? or
might I find hidden against its folds
festering wounds denied,
Or are you really fearful of – healing?
that you must
~ Kuala Lumpur
An artist in pain.
Once, I made the mistake of seeing the artist.
There was an art exhibit that a traveller was excited about. Not really being in the art scene myself, I had never heard of her, even though she was supposed to be a really famous artist. So I looked up her work, to see what sorts of art she made.
They were indeed very arresting pieces. But as I scrolled through, image by image, the marvel over her imagination and skill very quickly became overshadowed by what I sensed beneath each completed piece.
No, I was not in the ‘art scene’. But I am a natural writer. Once, long ago, I wrote reams and reams of creative work, and I can recognise when someone’s work draws from pain. Hers fairly screamed of it.
Curious, I looked her up. Was was the origin of the pain? Or, if I was wrong, what other things could it mean? But indeed, her life history involved experiences of abuse and pain.
Pretend you didn’t see.
I assumed that the fan of an artist would already know about this, and would empathise. But I was wrong. I was excoriated for bringing it up.
Until today, I’m not sure why – was it wrong to notice the artist’s pain? Was it ‘not the done thing’? Was it not de rigueur to care for an artist’s or writer’s mental health vs marvelling at the brilliant art that the crucible of those issues may have produced?
It is one of the many inconsistencies that neurotypical people accept without question, but which I have difficulty with. If I’m expected to at least want to rush to the aid of an accident victim if I saw the distress, why is mental distress different? Because she is not imminently dying? Because the pain is not physical?
Anyway, the point is, my insight was definitely not appreciated. Because it ‘ruined’ his enjoyment of the art.
I understand that even less. I think if anyone who read from my work, and came to tell me, I can see you from what you wrote, I would weep.
You see it all the time with public figures, celebrities who don’t even really hide their pain, as if waiting to see who would see them, over their image. It makes me sad to read even friends of those people express surprise over their suicide. Because, even without paying too much attention, such events rarely surprised me.
In fact, the realisation that my difficulty with social communication makes me a Cassandra – unable to warn others despite having insight of their pain or danger – was what compelled me to devote so much effort to learn something that did not at all come naturally to me.
The illusion of the struggling artist.
There’s a belief that in order to be outstanding, an artist must be suffering. Indeed, the various pains of life do rage for a channel of expression. Often, with the right sort of skill, they do produce interesting and moving works of music, art and literature.
But, sucks for the artist, huh?
I once felt something like a resistance, to truly address some mental habits that I had acquired in my formative years as a form of coping mechanism. After a while, you fall in love with your own despair, because it’s so beautiful at the same time.
Part of the resistance was that I feared I would lose my edge, my ability to mould and create. I feared that by becoming whole and balanced, I would become boring. I believed, per the popular culture, that you must be broken to be interesting and intellectual. After all, many of the Renaissance philosophers, and certainly the modern German ones, could not be described as ‘happy’. Yet look how admired they are!
But it’s not true.
As a counterpoint, the poetry of Rumi is beautiful and long enduring, because of the wholeness where his words came from. Not a wholeness that has never suffered – but one that was won from a life during trying times.
You don’t lose your creative talent, just because you are no longer broken. It’s just that your art starts to become about bigger-than-just-you, since your personal need to be seen has receded. When you have healed, you can also pour out that experience just the same as you used to pour your pain. And the effect on your audience is also – healing.
The never-ending race.
I had a friend visit from Australia the other day. In fact, the odyssey of my “Blue Period” began in Sydney, when I visited her. But she told me that she could not bring herself to follow my blog, because it made her feel like she has not done enough with her life.
I remember that feeling. I remember it from a time when I did not understand, and was still competing with other people’s lives. It comes back every now and again, when I forget the things I have learned and seen. You feel like you’re ‘late’. That you haven’t got enough to show for your life.
All of which may be perfectly valid and true.
But the common mistake is to compare it with the achievements of others, as a measure of where we’re supposed to be at.
The reality is, even if you managed to eclipse someone else’s achievements by their life’s measures, if it is not true to your own purpose, you would not be happy. That person might be happy in your place, but not you.
It is useful to take guidance from others in terms of what you need to survive, to have basic resources and skills to start with. However, in terms of what it looks like when you thrive – not even you know that. But only you can discover it.
And – despite what our present day culture tries to make us believe – there is no race. Everyone is really just looking to complete themselves.
Forfeit the race.
So then this friend of mine tells me about all the things that she has tried in Australia, in chronic attempts to stave off the drudgery of her corporate working life. The same person who told me that she hasn’t done enough things, lists out the many practical skills she has acquired while trying this or that hobby. But she doesn’t ‘count’ them, because she stops once she was competent enough to do it, and none of them ever became passions.
In the ‘racing’ paradigm, you count things you do like someone is awarding points. Some ‘count’, others ‘don’t count’. But if you realise there’s no race, everything you learn and everything you went through, gives you pieces to build with. Build what? I don’t know – only she has the key to her own blueprint.
I told her that I did not end up doing this many things now (really, I can’t keep up sometimes!), by planning it and doing many things.
The paradox is, finding your key requires that you first stop doing so many things. If you can, take a sabbatical. Or part time work. Maybe a career break. Perhaps see what can be removed from your life – simplify.
In that vacated space, you could listen to yourself. You could place yourself in different places and mindsets – essentially travel, even if you don’t leave your country or city. Then you could figure out what matters. And then, you can start to get better at picking the right things.
To start healing, stop racing. Just run – for the joy of running.
My friend also told me, I had changed so much in three years. And it’s true.
They were intense years, though. A lot of difficult mental work, re-writing scripts, being confronted with inconsistencies I never even noticed were there, getting used to not having the dysfunctional parts anymore, learning to deal with friends and family who are worried on my behalf, because I no longer needed the safeguards of a much smaller person.
You only see people when they’ve climbed to their spotlight. You think they have always been whole, have never been broken. That they did not grow their capacity, that they must always have had it.
But being whole is not about never being broken. Not about never making mistakes. It is about constantly choosing to become whole. Constantly becoming your purpose. Never losing the ability to recognise what wholeness is. It’s a long journey until you even get to the part where you start to really understand the value of what you’re doing.
Indeed, many people talk their way out of that journey, for many reasons. You don’t know how long it takes and how hard. And, What if it fails spectacularly?
But the real blocker for people who are able to manage the risk of failure, is the opposite. What if I succeed? What if I become whole? Who am I, without my bad habits? I won’t know myself. And something that stops a great many people – People will ridicule me. I might change so much, maybe I will lose my friends!
No such thing. (Well, maybe the ridicule part could be true, depending on your peer group).
Yes. You will be different. But provided you’re growing into your own self, you will never ‘not recognise yourself’. That is literally how you can tell, if the path is right for you. Just like a sketch gaining detail the more the artist fills it in, you will recognise it as more and more you, with each change.
And give your friends the chance to be challenged, to also grow and change with you. They may surprise you.
I won’t lie. Dealing with your pain and the issues that create that pain, is itself painful. It’s hard and uncomfortable, and your ego will resist it. But once you work out that it is this resistance that is the source of difficulty and pain, and learn to empty out your ego, things progress faster than you could fathom.
Like unclogging a drain, and watching it somehow transform into a great, flowing, abundant river. And then, just when you’re well pleased with it, herds of wildebeest and stuff start migrating to drink from it. Your healing of your personal blockages, quickly turns into a whole ecosystem. Once you do this without ego, every way that you are in your own way, if you can manage to undo that, will have this effect. (I still have things to work on – the long-standing ones are hard to see!).
But it’s worth it. The first time it happens, you know it’s real and it’s worth everything.
This kind of healing and peace is only reached by rising higher than our current realities – to understand the root where everything reconciles. There you will find yourself. The blueprint of you.
There, you will also find everyone else. And thereby lose all interest in choosing ‘sides’ – because you understand, they’re all your side(s?).
Why are we so afraid? Reaching that place of Unity and wholeness – what greater victory is there?