the war of art
Updated: Jan 23, 2020
Why are so many people miserable? I ponder that question quite often.
Obviously, the answer requires some nuance. Some people are miserable because unthinkable tragedies have struck them down. Some people are miserable because they are in constant physical pain or suffering from a serious mental illness. Some people are miserable because they are being abused. Some people are miserable because they live in countries with horrible, tyrannical governments. The list goes on, full of other extreme examples that I can’t fit into one blog post.
But what about the rest of us? What about people who lead relatively easy lives? No tragedies, no severe physical limitations or mental illness, no abuse, no tyranny – just normal stuff like money troubles, relational ups and downs, occasional health issues, work stress, disappointments, difficulties, unpleasant interactions, and general angst about the future.
What’s our excuse for misery?
Today, the vast majority of Americans (across all economic classes) live far, far better than most people in the world. Yes, some live in more luxury than others, but nearly all Americans live more luxuriously than any population ever before us, and with unprecedented access to information and resources. Yet misery persists. Despite so many reasons to be relatively happy, suicide rates continue to climb.
It seems that in 2018 more and more people are anxious, overly-medicated, perpetually offended, envious, shame-obsessed, sex-obsessed, intellectually lazy, glued to social media, desperate to find meaning, lonely, and resistant to difficulty of any kind.
Writer Steven Pressfield offers a surprisingly simple answer in his book, The War of Art. He writes:
"Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.
Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark upon a spiritual practice...or dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling?...Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn't write, a painter who doesn't paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture?
Then you know what Resistance is."
According to Pressfield, "Resistance" is the answer to my question. Resistance makes us miserable. He continues:
"Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes less than we are and were born to be.
If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius. Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner spirit, holy and inviolable, which watches over us, guiding us to our calling. A writer writes with his genius. An artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris."
I think Pressfield's onto something. People who are passionately engaged in a worthwhile pursuit generally aren’t as miserable as those who are not. At least, I know that's true of me (and I've suffered my fair share of resistance.) I'd bet it's true of others, too. I’ve read The War of Art a number of times now, but what got me thinking about it recently is the movie Creed II (which, by the way, was quite good. Baby Creed vs. Baby Drago was a risk, but it worked.)
If you’re familiar with the Rocky/Creed series, then you know that one of the main themes is embracing what you were made to do and and seeing it through, no matter the odds. In the case of Rocky and Adonis, they were both born to be fighters, and they chose to fight despite the pain and potential consequences.
Adonis (like Rocky) starts off rough, unrefined, and discontent, but he has a burning desire to fight. Over the course of the movie, through discipline and discomfort, he's transformed into the version of himself that he truly wants to be. By the end, he's someone who "goes the distance," like Rocky. Eight movies later, it's still a satisfying ending.
Sadly, though, for many of us, if our lives were made into a movie, the montage wouldn't be nearly as inspirational. Instead of determination and self-discipline, ours might feature complaining, blame-shifting, excuse-making, escapism, procrastination, self-pity, and the like (i.e. lots and lots of resistance)...all culminating to what? What's our transformation? I think that’s the question most people aren’t willing to ask themselves. But we should.
Pressfield wants to know: What were you made to do, and why aren't you doing it? It will never be easy, but it's better than the alternative -- which is misery.
"How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive cellphone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is calling us to?
Every sun casts a shadow, and genius’s shadow is Resistance. As powerful as is our soul’s call to realization, so potent are the forces of Resistance arrayed against it. Resistance is faster than speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, harder to kick than crack cocaine. We’re not alone if we’ve been mowed down by Resistance; millions of good men and women have bitten the dust before us. And here’s the biggest bitch: We don’t even know what hit us.”
That last line rings so true. If we don't look in the mirror and finally see what (or, more accurately, "who") the problem is, resistance wins, and misery wins. But, if we recognize that resistance is within us, and it's evil, then we have a chance to fight it. Paul's words to the Corinthians come to mind:
"You know that in a race all the runners run, but only one runner gets the prize. So run like that. Run to win! All who compete in the games use strict training. They do this so that they can win a prize—one that doesn’t last. But our prize is one that will last forever. So I run like someone who has a goal. I fight like a boxer who is hitting something, not just the air. It is my own body I fight to make it do what I want."
Don't let resistance (and misery) win. Fight back, and be transformed.