This blog post will be somewhat different than previous posts. I think because maybe my writing, for the first time, is part of my processing the experience itself.
Recently, I experienced a brief illness: a severe allergic reaction to a vaccination. Along with the typical flu like symptoms, this reaction caused intense spasms pain all over my body. Pain of this kind is the notable symptom of the disease which I was trying to avoid. I could ironically muse about the fact that the medical profession has found that the path to better health often times seems to be what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. But, I'll refrain. Having had loved ones who experienced the disease that the vaccination prevents, I am grateful that now, with the unwavering support of my loved ones, I stand on my own two feet immune, despite a terrible experience. I suppose another bright spot of this experience is that I have found that there is actually something on this planet that makes me quite literally “one in a million.” Most folks get this vaccination and their only experience is a pinch and cheerfully move on with their lives. Alas, I must admit that my vanity was hoping for a bit more out of life than to be an anomaly of medical science. Maybe that’s why I make art and write? A good question. But, I don’t think the drive of mere vanity, a desire for some kind of immortality, or brand of uniqueness alone is enough to fuel a lifelong personal vocation for anyone. So maybe my soul is safe in that regard? At least I’m hoping so. Besides, we all know the old story about artists never gaining respect or recognition until long after their own deaths. To engage in art betting on fame and fortune would certainly be one’s vanity playing the long shot in life it seems to me.
Be that all as it may, my recent personal experience has left a mark beyond the singular one on my left upper arm where I got the vaccination. The experience of intense pain, pain that simply does not allow you to think clearly or about anything else, that is quite literally physically staggering can be profound. My small recent experience of pain brought to the forefront of my mind a dear friend who lived with severe chronic pain. The sheer heroism and grace of his daily life where he somehow put aside his pain to dedicate himself to productive pursuits, kindness, and cheerfulness staggers my mind. Indeed, such people seem to have chosen that Buddha-like path: knowing that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. And that in pain, our challenge is to find the gift.
So many stories of suffering artists, artists where pain was an almost constant companion in their lives. Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo come immediately to mind. Despite all the romanticizing of the image of the suffering artist neither artist found creative inspiration in pain. In fact, Van Gogh cursed his physical limitations and bouts with mental illness as the greatest obstacles to his work. Kahlo found her art as the best way of expressing her dreams and all that was good, wonderful, and beautiful, despite her physical and emotional pain. For both artists, pain was chronic, but suffering was the inability to create. Creating was the gift because the act of making art was not only a way of coping, but a way of making sense of their pain. They didn’t chose their physical pain, but they did actively chose to manage their suffering by channeling that energy into their painting.
Pain is a strange companion, when present it is almost all there is. When not, the relief makes it almost difficult to recall with any exactitude. Like a stranger wearing a mask, we recognize the fearful shape of pain, but cannot recount specific features. In many ways, I think Hayao Miyakaki's image of the character No Face in his film Spirited Away, is a perfect personification of Pain. But, our hearts keep a record of pain, its heralds and its scars. Like echos of a shout in a canyon, remnants of little hurts live in one’s body and heart and are recalled when there is a symptom, a rainy day, a hint of that form on the horizon, or any small reminder. The causes of physical pain can be varied, from a virus to a shattering life experience. We even call it “a broken heart.” A broken heart is real pain and suffering. Anyone who has loved and lost knows this. Certainly Van Gogh and Kahlo knew this. The sleeplessness, nausea, dizziness, pressure on the chest, difficulty in breathing…sounds like the flu, sounds real enough for a diagnoses does it not? Our bodies remember this pain too, just as it does the stubbed toes, bumped heads, and flus. Perhaps, some of the gifts of pain is perspective on life’s events, and the ability to recognize and compassionately support others in pain. In pain, one’s thought process is completely simplified. One’s psyche completely paired down to the bare essence of things, perhaps this is a kind of "flow," perhaps this too may be a kind of gift. But there is no doubt that in the Herculean effort in channeling all this some extraordinary people can create with a fervor and intensity of vision that is wholly singular.
I think it is unwise and tragically naive to seek out pain in life in the hopes that it will make one more creative. That not only is foolish, as Jim Morrison said, "Nobody here gets out alive" or I'll add without pain. But, that romantic vapid media image of suffering artists I think does artists like Van Gogh and Kalho a great disservice by not recognizing their incredible strength of will in their heroic dedication to their life’s work. As for myself, I never found any artistic inspiration in the trials and tribulations of life. To be sure the sun shone a bit brighter the morning I awoke and the pain was gone. And maybe that was that part of this experience’s gift to me. For surely I have a deeper appreciation for my ability to experience the world as a healthy able bodied and able minded person as well as a profoundly deeper admiration for those who, despite their pain chose to create the beautiful from suffering.