The reverential Walt Whitman was a poet who lived the way he wrote — richly, personally and courageously.
What does it mean to be brave? Is courage action in the absence of fear or is it action in spite of it? And what does it have to do with being an artist?
“All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.” — Henry Miller, Writer
Humbly put, courage has EVERYTHING to do with being an artist because making art — making a statement as a free individual human being— is the most outlandish thing one can do in the face of fear, conformity, pain or oppression.
As creatives, we live with fear daily, sometimes even in the smallest of moments. Why? Because we’re always trying to do something new. We’re trying to break new ground and discover things. We want things to change. All of that entails risks. Risks imply the reality that we’re most likely to fail. And with failure, we know for sure that we’ll experience pain and suffering of all kinds including, but not exclusively, that of embarrassment, personal disappointment and loss (of energy, capital or respect).
Daffy Duck is accosted by The Abominable Snowman, in Chuck Jones’ 1961 short “The Abominable Snow Rabbit.”
“It’s a simple matter of logic. I’m not like other people, I can’t stand pain, it hurts me.” — Daffy Duck
If being an artist is so wrought with stories of failure and accompanied by statistics that “prove” that being an artist is foolish, then why do art? Why behave so irrationally? Because the alternative is unimaginable. Artists MUST create art. And, just because you might take the safe route and fail anyways.
This small excerpt from Jim Carrey’s commencement speech at Maharishi Unversity is an inspiring message about taking risks.
There is only one direction in life and that is forward. We can’t be held back by fear. We must never think that we’re ever too young or too old, too weak or too poor. I’ve personally struggled with this for much of my life, despite the illusion of bravery that my friends see. Every time I jumped into an operating room, each time I took a new direction in my career, whenever I moved to a new city or simply strayed from the popular path, I was scared. My logically-oriented brain would always fight me and come up with reasons to justifying remaining with the status quo. That’s what the brain does. It thinks, calculates, and reasons. It does this to protect us from using up our energy, our resources and risks to our physical well-being. It desires guaranteed safety. But there are no guarantees in life except for the fact that if we don’t ever take any steps toward our dreams, we’ve 100% guaranteed that we’ll never ever achieve any one of them.
“Woe to that man who does not put his trust in life.” — Henry James, Writer
The thing is we’re no long homo-sapiens hiding in a cave with big-toothed cats dying to eat us. We’re also more than are our brains. We’re creatures a hundred-thousand years in the making that have also developed instincts, creativity and courage — things that live deep within every cell of our bodies. There is a great and broad intelligence there, a subconscious even unconscious brilliance that we call intuition. When we follow our intuition we say we’re “following our heart” — shoving aside logic in favor of a deeper drive or calling. It’s a true act of bravery. Is it any wonder why it’s the heart —the mighty muscle that pumps life giving blood into our veins — that is used as a symbol for strength and courage?
Even as cavemen, we were driven to capture the world around us and tell our stories. This beautiful cave art took memory, intelligence, creativity and resourcefulness. All acts of bravery live beyond the time required to execute them.
Every so often I have to remind myself to “lead with the heart, create with the mind, and act with the body.” In other words; let the heart decide on which choices to make, allow the mind to find the solutions and make the body do the work.
“Separate thinking from doing. Man is a thinking reed but his greatest works are done when he is not calculating and thinking.” — Suzuki Daisetsu, Zen Master
Now, even as the heart is the driving force behind any meaning to our existence —because without purpose both mental or physical activity would feel empty — we must also remember that without mental and physical support, the dreams we have will not become realities. We need to take a comprehensive approach to living. We must invest wholeheartedly with mind, body, and spirit.
“When the artist is alive in any person… he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding.” —Robert Henri
We must also remember that there are only two natural fears that we are born with: the fear of falling and the fear of loud sounds. All other fears are learned.
Tom Cruise stars as Ethan Hunt in John Woo’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. We’re all born with the physical fear of falling which makes death-defying stunts so fun to watch. Unfortunately, a lot of us extend this fear of falling to other things, and stop our dreams from ever taking flight.
So how do we overcome our fears? Unlearning our fears, like our learning of them, takes both time and effort. We cannot expect to discard indoctrination or influence that have taken so many years to accumulate with a small commitment to change. Both practice and patience are requirements. This is when we must apply our intelligence. The brain is the “how-to” center of our being. If it doesn’t know the answer, it’ll guide you to where you can find the answer, be it in the form of books, formal education, or genuine mentorship/guidance.
It won’t be easy. Nothing good ever is. There’s no shortcuts to achieving real knowledge/mastery just as there aren’t any for love. We have to earn it and we have to fight for it. Because when we don’t fight for ourselves, we’ll succumb to chance and we’ll give in to entropy (laziness) and emptiness. Sustained emptiness leads to apathy and anger. Complaint, criticism and condemnation soon follows that. Those who stay “there” too long, stop fighting their fears and begin to fight with others. That frustrated energy has to go somewhere.
Nina Paley’s marvelous little short “This Land is Mine” is a perfect summary of the violent stupidity of men. When we don’t kill the demons from within, we mistake others for our demons.
Now, all this leading with the heart and suspension of rationality may seem silly, irrational and utopian to some, but life’s a personal decision that’s ours and ours alone to make. Fact is, all great leaps in history, whether it be in the arts, sciences or social justice were met with ridicule and opposition. It takes great courage to fight the impediments to growth, both internally and externally. Man cannot survive without the opportunity to explore and act out his individual personal expression. Neither can he live without a connection with life outside of himself (the very definition of spirituality and love). It’s the absence of these “ingredients to conscious living” that lead to neurosis, and subsequently, unfortunate behavior.
Doing art — creating and sharing — is the only way to provide the psychological sustenance required for complete human living.
Besides, at the end of the day, our lives are short:
A scene featuring one of my favorite characters of all time, Robin William’s John Keating in Peter Wier’s marvelous film Dead Poet’s Society.
“Still we live meanly, like ants: though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and inevitable wretchedness. Our life frittered away by detail… Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! … let your affairs be two or three, not a hundred or a thousand.” — Henry David Thoreau, Philosopher