Muhammad Ali dodges a punch from Sonny Liston in his 1965 match for the heavyweight title of the world. In any fight, the punches are real. Fighters dodge and roll with them but they can’t run away from them because they’ll keep coming. In the same way in life, we can’t run away from our fears.
In all honesty, I don’t feel quite qualified to talk about worry. Because I’ve by no means conquered it. Far from it actually. I’ve been a worrier most of my life. I have to fight it each and everyday, taking all my will and courage just to survive the interrogation of my mind and the assault it takes on my body and my soul. The moment I became conscious as an wholly independent person left all alone in this universe, worry was born. And once born, like Pandora’s box, it can’t be unborn or put back to where it was hiding. And the strength of its power! It can overwhelm us in the most terrible and influential ways, anywhere, anytime.
“The rule for all terrors is to head straight into them.” — Alan Watts
The opposite of worry is optimism. The two are like oil and water. We have to choose between them. Yet most people choose to swim in oil instead of water. Doing art, or anything creative, is an act of faith, like taking a drink from the ocean of fresh opportunity and diving into the vastness of our dreams. That body of water is both inviting, exciting and scary. But it’s far easier and safer to cover ourselves in oil and just sit back on the beach. The thing is, we often forget that over-caution and pessimism are some of the greatest diseases of attitude.*
When Picasso introduced Cubism in the early 1900’s people were aghast by what they saw. They didn’t understand it. It was the first great departure in the history of art from seeing things in natural perspective and light. The only way to make history is to dive in, head first.
We all know that life is hard and being an artist seems that much harder (or at least riskier). To many, choosing art is crazy escapism — an ode to utopia taken on by idealists, dreamers and lazy drifters unwilling to deal with reality. Shouldn’t we all be lawyers, accountants, and doctors, or something else that’s practical and coherent with the current economic trends? There’s a reason why every parent wishes such careers for their children — safety. Worry and pessimism are often disguised as reality or reason.
“The man who spends his entire life turning the wheels of industry so that he has neither the time nor energy to occupy himself with any other needs of his human organism is by far a greater escapist than the one who has developed his art. For the man who develops his art does make adjustments to his physical needs. He understands that man must have bread to live, while the other cannot understand that you cannot live by bread alone.” — Mark Rothko
As mentioned in previous writings, creativity is in our blood. And for those whose concentration of this potent element is strong, there is no choice but to move forward artistically, security be damned. But that doesn’t stop of us from worrying.
The work of Jean-Michel Basquiat captured an anxiety particular to his person and the times that he lived. Worry and depression took the artist’s life way too early but his art lives on. This 1982 painting recently sold for a crazy figure (exceeding $100 million).
When we worry, we forget about the process. We live outside of the not just the moment but that of the experience. Even though 90% of all fears never become reality, most of us still spend a large portion of our time there, completely preoccupied with the unknown future — the imaginative “what-ifs” of life.
“Don’t major in minor things” — Jim Rohn
Sigourney Weaver stars as Ellen Ripley, in Ridley Scott’s brilliant 1979 sci-fi thriller, Alien, which was shot mostly in the dark. We’re all frightened by what we can’t see.
In truth, most fears are illusions. They’re often dramatized pictures and scenarios our busy little minds come up with when given the opportunity. In a sense the mind is like dog with a lot of energy. If we don’t tell it what to do or play with it, it’ll go nuts. And an unhappy dog makes for a big mess to clean up afterwards. A mind gone wild can cause even bigger trouble because it can habitualize whatever it does — that is, it can become addicted to worrying. If anxiety is love’s greatest enemy, then worry is its number one killer.
“Don’t worry, worry brings fear, and fear is crippling.” — Earl Nightingale
Worry takes its roots from fear. Although we can’t be naive about it, especially being artists, we must always keep in mind to counter it with optimism and faith. If we can keep worry and fear isolated as a relatively small and minor component of our lives, then there is room to be happy, and room to grow. A preoccupation with fear and worry stops all creative and pragmatic action. We must make better use of our imaginative capacities.
“Art is such an action. It is a kindred form of action to idealism.” — Mark Rothko
A lot of people don’t understand Mark Rothko’s paintings. But seen in person, you’ll realize they aren’t about “something.” Rather they are an experience — deep human emotions conveyed with paint and canvas.
But most people have it backwards. They think they will be happy (optimistic) when worry disappears. What they’re really saying is they’ll choose to take positive action AFTER it’s safe to do so. Most people choose to delay doing what they want till their retirement even though mortality rates accelerate dramatically after retirement. In fact, most people live less than 10 more years after they retire. Not an inspiring reality considering we’ve spent over half of our lives saving up for this “glorious” period — one which is often accompanied by the loss of health, life-partners and friends.
“Carpe diem.” — Horace, Roman Poet
Another common example of such a disturbing philosophy is when people say they’ll give to charity (either time or money) AFTER they’ve struck it rich. It’s a mindset that’s incredibly dis-empowering, and ultimately, completely fruitless. In fact, worries and fears don’t disappear when external circumstances change. Instead, they get replaced by new worries, or come back as old ones in disguise.
So to counter our worries, we often choose to get busy. But we shouldn’t necessarily count all action as good action.
“Don’t confuse movement with progress… what you need is discipline and consistency.”— Denzel Washington
The magnificent Denzel Washington plays the courageous Private Trip, the American slave turned soldier in Glory, Edward Zwick’s powerful film about prejudice and war.
The work and action we take must be that of focused action. Disciplined action. Constructive action that aligns us with worthy goals. Dreams without specific goals leads to aimlessness. Goals without commitment and consistency leads to delusion. All too often we’re caught up in the busyness of life, not doing anything of consequence. Most jobs are being done in such fashion. Sometimes it’s the fault of the job, but more often than not, it’s the fault of the attitude of the person doing the work. Our attitude — the narrative we give ourselves— is what gives any action meaning. Quality activity begins with a quality mind, one of attention, focus and earnestness. Joy comes from this place in the mind.
Yorkshire, by David Hockney. Hockney’s art is always filled with a sense of security and joy. He chose himself and the results speak loudly of what he wanted to say. He’s often viewed as England’s greatest visual artist.
So we mustn’t worry too much. No one knows the future. We need to be aware of reality but not let our (or other’s) limited perceptions of the universe contaminate our minds. If we’re focused, prepared and dedicated to our dreams and principles, all else will take care of itself. History has shown time and time again, how wrong most public/popular opinions have been been. Be it art, science or economics most everyone has it wrong almost all of the time. The only way to approach life is optimistically. Otherwise we’ll be paralyzed by fear. Our direction determines our destination.
“I have always believed that art should be a deep pleasure. I think there is a contradiction in an art of total despair, because the very fact that the art is made seems to contradict despair.” — David Hockney
*paraphrased from Jim Rohn’s Seven Diseases of Attitude.