Our Better Angels - Trust

Big magic: creative living beyond fear - Elizabeth Gilbert 2015

Our Better Angels

Iwant to make something perfectly clear here: I do not deny the reality of suffering—not yours, not mine, not humanity’s in general. It is simply that I refuse to fetishize it. I certainly refuse to deliberately seek out suffering in the name of artistic authenticity. As Wendell Berry warned, “To attribute to the Muse a special fondness for pain is to come too close to desiring and cultivating pain.”

To be sure, the Tormented Artist is sometimes an all-too-real person. Without a doubt, there are many creative souls out there who suffer from severe mental illness. (Then again, there are also hundreds of thousands of severely mentally ill souls out there who do not happen to possess extraordinary artistic talents, so to automatically conflate madness with genius feels like a logical fallacy to me.) But we must be wary of the lure of the Tormented Artist, because sometimes it’s a persona—a role that people grow accustomed to playing. It can be a seductively picturesque role, too, with a certain dark and romantic glamour to it. And it comes with an extremely useful side benefit—namely, built-in permission for terrible behavior.

If you are the Tormented Artist, after all, then you have an excuse for treating your romantic partners badly, for treating yourself badly, for treating your children badly, for treating everyone badly. You are allowed to be demanding, arrogant, rude, cruel, antisocial, grandiose, explosive, moody, manipulative, irresponsible, and/or selfish. You can drink all day and fight all night. If you behaved this badly as a janitor or a pharmacist, people would rightfully call you out as a jackass. But as the Tormented Artist, you get a pass, because you’re special. Because you’re sensitive and creative. Because sometimes you make pretty things.

I don’t buy it. I believe you can live a creative life and still make an effort to be a basically decent person. I’m with the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on this point, when he observes: “If the art legitimates cruelty, I think the art is not worth having.”

I’ve never been attracted to the icon of the Tormented Artist—not even during adolescence, when that figure can seem particularly sexy and alluring to romantic-minded girls like me. It never appealed to me then, though, and it still doesn’t appeal to me now. What I’ve seen already of pain is plenty, thank you, and I do not raise my hand and ask for more of it. I’ve also been around enough mentally ill people to know better than to sentimentalize madness. What’s more, I’ve passed through enough seasons of depression, anxiety, and shame in my own life to know that such experiences are not particularly generative for me. I have no great love or loyalty for my personal devils, because they have never served me well. During my own periods of misery and instability, I’ve noticed that my creative spirit becomes cramped and suffocated. I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible for me to write when I am unhappy, and it is definitely impossible for me to write fiction when I am unhappy. (In other words: I can either live a drama or I can invent a drama—but I do not have the capacity to do both at the same time.)

Emotional pain makes me the opposite of a deep person; it renders my life narrow and thin and isolated. My suffering takes this whole thrilling and gigantic universe and shrinks it down to the size of my own unhappy head. When my personal devils take over, I can feel my creative angels retreating. They watch my struggle from a safe distance, but they worry. Also, they grow impatient. It’s almost as if they’re saying, “Lady, please—hold it together! We’ve got so much more work to do!”

My desire to work—my desire to engage with my creativity as intimately and as freely as possible—is my strongest personal incentive to fight back against pain, by any means necessary, and to fashion a life for myself that is as sane and healthy and stable as it can possibly be.

But that’s only because of what I have chosen to trust, which is quite simply: love.

Love over suffering, always.