Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

The Problem With Living a Creative Life

Why artists struggle with relationships

Photo: Poitin Jimmie

Being creative is hard. Thinking up ways to connect disparate elements into a whole that not only hasn't been seen before but also delights us with surprise, meaning, or beauty requires a great deal of energy—"executive function," as psychologists put it. Not to mention the time it takes to create something novel and then rework it and rework it and rework it until the original seed blossoms into a fully-formed painting or book or poem or song or blog post. It's said that all writing is rewriting, but creation in any medium requires a laborious chipping away at unnecessary parts and a relentless enlarging and refining of others. And then there's the space the children of our creativity occupy in our heads. Even more perhaps than flesh-and-blood children, we obsess over them constantly, ever mindful that, unlike our flesh-and-blood children, we're responsible for shaping their every aspect. Our creative projects are in a sense even more an extension of ourselves than our flesh-and-blood children, and as a result we love them just as much.

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All this is to say that, even though we're rarely able to devote our full time to the act of creation, it is, in fact, a full-time job. When you're not actively doing it, you're resting from having done it. And thinking about doing it again. Yes, the act of creation can be addictive.

Which means, as many creative people know, it can cause harm. It can, for instance, pull you away from other important aspects of your life, most notably relationships with other people. It's certainly no coincidence that many great artists throughout history have failed at maintaining long-term relationships, often divorcing not just once but several times. Certainly this could be explained by the over-sized egos many great artists have been said to possess, but I strongly suspect that obsession with the creative act itself played a larger role for many.

Certainly, creating something provides immense personal satisfaction. But artists are also drawn to create art by their desire to create value for others to enjoy, to learn from, or to be inspired by. For some, the act of creation defines the meaning of life itself and without the ability and the time to do it, no other activity of life is able to please.

But against the desire to create must be balanced other aspects of life. For like an unrecovered alcoholic who lives only to drink and who will effortlessly toss all other parts of her life aside to do it, artists who care only for their art, who neglect important relationships, will find themselves at risk for living lives that, while pleasurable in many moments, are ultimately miserable. I know this because I feel the tug of the solitary, creative life pulling at me every day—and have indulged in it often enough at different points in my life to know that, for me, that way lies not only misery but also diminished creativity. (The mental energy required for creative work flows far more readily in happy people than sad ones. And even introverts need some degree of social interaction be happy.)

And though artists who choose to live a predominantly solitary life, who never marry or have children, can certainly find happiness, they will often still have romances and friendships that require tending. But artists who cut themselves off from others to pursue their art, or who only connect with others when it suits them, caring about others only to the extent that it satisfies their own needs, will almost certainly find themselves unable to enjoy satisfying relationships.

I find tragic those artists whose need to produce art has turned the process of art-making into a single-minded obsession. Becoming obsessed with creating art is certainly something to which all creative people are vulnerable, but the happiest artists I've observed are those who've learned not just to walk away from whatever they're working on regularly, but to walk toward interpersonal relationships when they do—relationships that are not only important and satisfying in and of themselves, but that often provide the grist for their creative mills when they walk back.

Because what people talk about at the very end of their lives when they're dying has little to do with art, with work, or even with religion or God.  What they talk mostly about is other people.  Other people they loved—or failed to love enough.  People they hurt and to whom they never made amends.  People they stood by and who stood by them.  The good times they had with their families and close friends and the bad times they endured with them.  Yes, art is important.  Yes, it has the potential to create wonderful value.  But if done at the expense of those we love, we likely won't greet our end with a deep sense of satisfaction but instead with a deep sense of regret.

 

Dr. Lickerman's book The Undefeated Mind will be published in late 2012.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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