Week 1

Creativity and Helplessness

by Meg Riley, senior minister, Church of the Larger Fellowship

Years ago, a therapist told me that people would rather feel absolutely anything besides helplessness. He used, as evidence of this, his work with an elderly Holocaust survivor, who, some fifty years later, still blamed herself intensely for “killing” one of her children in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Evidently she was given a “Sophie’s choice” kind of non-choice and had to leave one of her children to die. She had spent her entire life hating and blaming herself.

I remember clearly when the therapist said, “Think what a miserable life she had, locked into that self-blame for something she had no control over. The worst situation any of us could imagine, feeling responsible for your own child’s death. Yet, to acknowledge her abject helplessness would have felt even worse.”

To avoid the feeling of helplessness, some of us go to self-blame and recrimination, self-hatred and shame. Others go to anger, or rage, even, or blaming other people. Most of us are stuck with some combination of these two horrible twins, shame and blame, that both come from and produce a sense of victimization.

Why do I say all of this in a column about creativity? Because when we are locked into these feelings of self-blame and rage at others, as we try to avoid the abject helplessness we feel in the face of forces much bigger than us, we are not in a place where we generally feel in touch with our creativity. Yet creative acts, no matter how small, could be our way out.

Creativity requires believing that we have the power to make, to shape, to be in the role of actor. Creativity, therefore, puts the lie to our total and complete helplessness. It is an antidote to a sense of victimization. Even if all we can create is a note to someone we love or dinner for ourselves, taking creative action helps us to remember more of who we are. Even if while we create we feel disinterested, or disengaged, the act of creativity itself may remind us that we have agency. Agency— the power to make choices—is the thing that is denied to people who are helpless.

Many of us fear the lack of agency that may come with sickness, or imprisonment, or old age, or poverty—situations where other people might control our lives without asking for or caring about our consent. And yet, knowing people who are old and poor and sick and imprisoned has shown me that anyone can exhibit agency, although we all do it in different ways.

Sometimes when we are frustrated our agency can come out in bitterness or complaint or even cruelty. Making a choice to not go down that path, but instead to create something in the world that is beautiful, or tasty, or kind, or builds community, can take us out of helplessness.

Recently I was watching a video of Leonard Cohen, a musician I greatly admire, who suffered from depression a great deal of his life, and eventually moved into a Zen monastery to do some healing. The interviewer asked him if he had feared that letting go of depression would limit his ability to create the kind of soulful music that people love. (This is a man, after all, whose final album before he died was called You Want It Darker.)

Cohen looked at the interviewer, shook his head in something like disbelief, and said, “That’s a popular notion, that it is exclusively suffering that produces good work…. But I think that good work is produced in spite of suffering and as a victory over suffering.”

I like the concept of creativity as victory over suffering, often done in spite of suffering. And so, when times are hard, I invite you to insert creativity where you can, even in tiny places, to claim your part in the co-creation of the universe.

We’re all making it together, every day. The smallest actions and choices may ripple out in ways we cannot imagine. As the saying goes, it is better to light one candle than to sit and curse the darkness. And even a very, very tiny candle still creates light!