A central thing we do as human beings, in our interaction with one another, is learn to block out psychic pain; and the degree to which we're able to, or even want to do so, constitutes a great distinction among us. Some people block out such pain quite well, while others feel more acutely emotions like empathy, and love, that so often go in tandem with pain. This distinction affects a great deal in our lives, and I'd like to touch upon a few of those things in this essay, but because writing is of particular interest to me, let me start with its effect on our ability to write creatively.
I'll take poetry here to represent creative writing, and creativity in general, because it's the most intensely creative form of writing. Clearly, in order to write poetry, one must apprehend and experience life as it is, free from the blinders most of us develop to insulate us from the more painful aspects of life. I'll talk more about these blinders shortly, but my first point is that all artists need to apprehend life, notwithstanding its coldness and indifference to the individual, to derive any meaningful insight to communicate.
(Once, in a failed attempt to learn to draw, I studied a book entitled Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. In essence, what it imparted was that when we begin to draw, most of us don't draw what we really see. Instead, we draw a representation of what we see - a representation created by our mind - a sort of symbol for what we see. When children first draw, for example, a tree, they don't draw what they really see before them, but a symbol of what they see. Not a tree, but the symbol of a tree. And most of us, when we attempt to draw, unless trained otherwise, continue to do this to a greater or lesser degree throughout our lives. A similar phenomenon takes place with writing; yet it's even more involved, and thus harder to overcome, because we are dealing with symbols that have deeper psychic roots than the symbols we create merely to understand the physical world.)
We create these symbols (or more accurately in this case, thought patterns) to hide ourselves from the painful aspects of reality. If, for example, a child realizes that his or her mother doesn't really love them, they create fictions to account for that behavior on her part. "She's just so busy. . ." or, "she can't express her true feelings," etc. Over time, these fictions and justifications become established facts in the child's mind, and often, encouraged by the withholder, established facts in the minds of others affected by the situation as well.
Thus, when a person writes about what they know best, or think they know best, their own life experience, they don't write the unvarnished truth, but, unwittingly, the sanitized version of the truth that exists in their mind - a symbol of reality like that of the neophyte artist. In order to shield ourselves we create comfortable illusions, but these illusions lack the fire of unadulterated vision. To write, especially to write poetry, is to suffer. A prime example of this truism would be the French poet, Baudelaire, whose sensitivity to the world was so acute it bordered on masochism. But with poetry (as with so much in this world of duality and paradox), we find a great contradiction regarding this question of sensitivity: one that partly accounts for there being so few great poets in any language.
John Keats (who was himself the most sensitive of human beings) said of his evolution as a poet, essentially, that the poet must gain detachment to be great; and, contrary to the above assertion that it's necessary for poets to retain their sensitivity, what Keats said was also true, and seems true of the creative process as a whole. One must gain detachment to present their vision in a manner that others (and not just they themselves) can appreciate, and yet one must retain their openness to be a poet - retain their capacity for passion, and compassion. They must not kill those things in themselves in exchange for the numbness that shields them from pain, but is also akin to death.
For that is the great price we pay for blocking out pain. With it we block out sensation, and sensation, in its broadest sense, is not just the meat of the writer, it is the essence of life. Our most meaningful communion with other living things is inextricably woven with sensation, and such communion is, finally, the only thing that really matters. No degree of luxury can make for a pleasant solitary confinement. On our deathbeds few of us will find ourselves wishing that we'd had a better car. It's relationships alone, with people and other beings, that have ultimate meaning. So just as the artist cannot allow themselves to be too sheltered, so people in general should seek to avoid the devil's bargain in order to remain, as fully as possible, alive. For, again, to completely block out the feelings that leave us most vulnerable to pain, is to effectively kill genuine communion, and thus in the process to gradually kill one's own spirit.
So, contrarily, the poet must be like a surgeon and stand aloof from their individual view of the world in order to reach the highest plane of communication, and through these two antipodes, the intensely personal and the universal, potentially reach those moments of transcendence that all artists should aspire to. And if the difficulties of embodying these contrary aspects of human nature at the same time, that of intense sensitivity and universal objectivity, seem insurmountable, that's because they virtually are, and that's why this level of artistry's so rare.
Shakespeare embodied these contrary aspects of the poet perhaps more clearly than anyone. Though he perceived the human condition all too clearly, in all its attendant injustice and tragedy, he was yet able to present that vision with unparalleled objectivity, as if he himself didn't exist. We see Shakespeare the man almost nowhere in his work - part of the reason, I think, that people seem eternally puzzled about who wrote his works. We know who wrote them. William Shakespeare wrote them. Yet having read them we still know nothing about Shakespeare the man, and so we remain curious.
This question of our respective abilities to block out pain has implications, however, much more fundamental, and urgent, than those of its affect upon the creative process. In our world today there are many advantages for those unable, or unwilling, to feel - and particularly for those who don't allow themselves to feel empathy. They can move through life relatively free of the pain of betrayal, rejection, and the other thousand shocks that flesh is heir to. Further, those who block their feelings have the potential to exert great power over those who retain more of their spiritual totality, through the exercise of various means of cruelty and manipulation. The reason for this is, at least partly, that others simply don't want to perceive the yawning depth of lovelessness in those who exhibit this characteristic in its acute forms.
This phenomenon of emotional deadening is complex, and something virtually all of us do to one degree or another. In some people it may arise from intense feelings of insecurity, from being too sensitive to absorb the assault on the self-esteem that everyone living encounters, in one form or another. In some it is innate. Those with personality disorders, such as narcissistic or anti-social personality disorder (conditions unfortunately more prevalent than most of us know)) lack something in their genetic makeup enabling them to bond with others. In my experience, to many such people, the realization follows that such a state of being has great advantages.
Those who deaden their emotions often find it brings them power, and power is addictive. There is something deeper here than readily meets the eye, something of universal importance. In this process some people become addicted to the thrill of power and substitute it for the finer aspects of themselves that have been deadened, or don't exist. This dichotomy, in many cases this choice, of whether to be or not to be, also seems connected to the conflict of the higher and lower forces that interact in the world, defining our reality.
The most subtle, and yet perhaps greatest, power of this deadened emotional receptiveness, may be achieved through simply withholding love and approval. Parents, for example, can exert a cleverly concealed tyranny over their children, simply by universally withholding love and approval, until their victims bow to their will. Such people may also resort to more egregious forms of subterfuge and intimidation, for the hollow, egotistical, thrill they find in getting their own way. Against people whose spectrum of emotional responses are intact, such withholding can prove to be an especially ruthless weapon. It has driven many people to suicide, and rarely does anyone confront the perpetrator. It can be a kind of hidden murder.
Such people seek to assert their will ruthlessly, though it may be arbitrary, irrational, or even perverted. Destroying their own spirits, they come to thrive on hollow substitutes, such as the thrill of self-righteousness, cruelty, and manipulation. It is this deadening of the higher sensibilities, such as love, associated with spiritual transcendence, that, left unchanged, will present humanity with its inevitable downfall. It is a mindset akin to that of a pack of hyenas fighting over a carcass, and a mindset that has become celebrated in our culture. Many people now, unabashedly even, see this mindset as the defining credo of America. This is much of the explanation for America's startlingly rapid decline since 1945.
Many who read this may be saying to themselves - he exaggerates! But a mere glance at the state of human society today should be enough to demonstrate that I do not. At this juncture anyone can see something is deeply wrong with society, and that it's hidden. Clearly it is there! We know it is! But what is it, where is it?
Here is where it is.
These qualities of sensitivity, or deadness to sensation, exist on a spectrum. We rarely find a single person who embodies one or the other entirely. We all must live in a world governed, at least partially, by Darwinian survival of the fittest, and we must all somehow adapt to the nature of that cold reality. Yet it is also true that the lack of sensitivity can and does become a recognized pathology, and that the key significance of these pathologies has just lately been fully recognized.
At any rate, such coercion through negation often goes completely unnoticed, and so it is a chief weapon of those who want to impose their will on others. It isn't socially acceptable (again, for example) for parents to openly demand that their daughter stay home and take care of them until they die. So instead they may withhold love and approval, and shame her for having a normal sexual interest. Thus a person who has emotionally detached acquires the power to dominate others, exerting a malevolent influence over those who have retained their capacity for love and the higher aspects of being.
This is true in society as well as in family. How can the abused point to nothing, to negation, as the source of their abuse? When in fact, negation itself is often the most significant aspect of how we are abused? How can we say that it's what our parents don't ever say that wounds us most? How can we say it's how our employers never respond, no matter how hard we work, that wounds us most? How can we say it's how we're never rewarded for our actions, no matter how loyal or altruistic they are, that wounds us most? It may very well be (and often is in an era in which evasion of responsibility has become elevated to a Dark Art), that no matter how abused we are, we can't ever point a finger at our abusers because the method used to abuse us is hidden.
In this, it seems to me, lies the consummate evil of the corporate structure, which seeks to codify the deadening of all feeling, of all impulses of love, and compassion, toward all people, and all living things, into an unassailable and all-powerful institution. This is, from my perspective, evil incarnate, and it is destroying the world. Yet the point is, and we all need to understand this: it is not the corporation itself that is evil. it is that aspect of ourselves described above, that has created the corporation in its own image, that is evil. It is the capacity in us to deaden all human feeling in order to achieve power that is evil.
From the corporate boardroom, to the halls of Congress, to the dysfunctional family, to the bully in the schoolyard, the world is filled with those who've traded their spiritual wholeness for a deadness in life that brings earthly power, and people need to recognize this clearly if they choose to oppose evil in our families and institutions.
It's very understandable that people want to shield themselves from pain, but it's well to see that in this seemingly understandable and forgivable tendency lies the root of evil itself. The world can bring us misfortunes, but only human beings can bring us evil. In my experience, those who block their feelings utterly, often come to see themselves as superior to those who cannot, or will not, do so. And this feeling of superiority in turn justifies ever higher degrees of selfishness and callousness over time. They see others who don't want to deaden themselves to the higher sensations and experiences in life, as weak, or stupid, and as being "an easy mark."
Thus the higher human feelings, such as love, compassion, and artistic creativity, often become a liability in the Darwinian jungle such people reduce us to, to suit their own lower natures, and the very higher aspects of ourselves that might enable us to advance as a species become liabilities, and chains, that tie us to evil masters. Such de-humanized people have an advantage because it's always easier to tear down and destroy than to build and create. So the first priority of civilized society is to see that those who have retained their higher human attributes remain those who direct the course of that society and shape the future. In the world today humanity is failing this test. Thus the world is made topsy turvy, and all too commonly, in too many walks of life, the worst of us come to dominate the best.
Copyright 2018 Brent Hightower
*Image from University of Worcester