Suffering Creatively


It may seem a tenuous link, to compare interior design with a mighty subject such as war and peace. To imagine wallpapers and table dressings in the same arena as the horrors of war is surely impossible but, from times of hardship and strife, come growth and creativity. Often, people use creativity and the arts to manage difficult times and to ensure that, despite all the destruction and death, something good can rise from the ashes.

Whether we are talking about negative life events, psychological disorders or physical/mental disability, when faced with challenges such as these humans are often forced to delve into their deepest mental reserves to discover their resilience.

There are many different theories concerning the link between creativity and mental disorders. One is that those who struggle emotionally would inherently be attracted to careers involving creativity anyway. Another more interesting theory is that those experiencing emotional distress turn to the creative arts in order to heal.

Research into the lives of famous creatives such as Frida Kahlo, van Gogh, Beethoven and Monet suggests that mental/physical illness and disability has contributed to their paths in life and therefore their successes as well.

Whether born with a disability/illness or experiencing it later in life, there are inevitable adjustments that humans must make and this is where resilience comes in. Being forced to re-address priorities in life can also lead to new passions in creative areas that might have previously been ignored. Like Frida Kahlo, born with spina bifida as well as developing polio at the age of six, her art took a direction that was very much led by her experiences of living with a chronic, severe condition.

In her book, When Walls Become Doorways: Creativity and the Transforming of Illness, Toby Zausner wrote about her own battle with ovarian cancer and stated that "an illness that feels like an impassible barrier can become a doorway to a new and more creative existence.”   

The process of forced rumination has been coined as ‘post-traumatic growth’ and is ‘a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.’

This does not just affect the famous; the process can hit anyone and is a common experience for those struggling to come to terms with a big life event. Not just a distraction, it’s also our brain’s way of readjusting our view by taking into consideration these new changes. In other words when big things happen to us we must go through the five stages of grief in order to process the information and come out the other side with a comprehensive and different understanding of our pre-existing assumptions about what life is and where we fit into it. As our old assumptions are demolished we become open to building new experiences, a new outlook and finally growth can begin again. We begin unwittingly to mirror the same processes that nature has been calmly following from the beginning - birth, growth, death, renewal.

It is clear that the relationship between adversity and creativity is an important one. For this reason, both art and drama therapy have played major roles in helping the process of post-traumatic growth. Understanding the process helps us thrive in change rather than fear it.

In her book, Don’t Shoot the Clowns: Taking a Circus to the Children of Iraq Jo Wilding writes about her experiences in the Iraq war and how she found a way to help children experiencing the horrors in a way that nobody else had done. Seeming like perhaps the last place on earth you might expect to find clowns performing in the street, the smiles on he faces of children in the middle of a war zone are hard to ignore.

When we listen to music a lot of the songs are about heartbreak or other traumatic experiences, evidence that suffering of some kind and creative growth go hand in hand. They are not however mutually exclusive; in fact, like painfully unrequited love, it’s a one-way relationship - adversity is not necessary for creativity but creativity can help during times of adversity.

But like light and dark, war and peace, one cannot exist without the other. It is for this reason that we should be thankful for the dark times. Not only do they make us stronger, more understanding, more humble and kinder but they open the doors for incredible creativity and we should be thankful for the bad, without which we would not be able to enjoy the good.

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