"Once there lived a king and queen who were rich and had everything they could wish for but no children. She complained day and night about this, and said,
"I am like a field on which nothing will grow."
Opening lines of "The Donkey," a Grimm's tale
And once there was a student who despaired, as well, and for years, inside of a very lovely life. Her despair was a bona fide demon from the underworld of soul. Nonetheless, she was chagrined, for hers was not a demon of sickness or loneliness or calamity. Her anguish was invisible and, she felt, relatively unimportant: She wanted to be an artist.
Now, she would prefer that I qualify this rapidly, and I will: she was not after greatness. But, in today’s world, the longing to be an ordinary artist is troublesome: If it is clear that we are not superior in talent, how might we create a meaningful relationship to art? How could we possibly make a contribution?
Many people are mystified by their desire to create something beautiful. Almost any other kind of longing is easier to mention.
The yearning for art can be embarrassing; it’s like admitting to unrequited love.
My student had been to many therapists. My student is a therapist, and a good one. Therapists, in my view, help to restore the integrities of belonging and mattering. That's crucial, but, for the human soul, it's not quite enough.
Here is an ideal progression:
Once belonging and mattering are firmly rooted, the forces inside us would like to produce a flower or fruit or nut: Art.
So what helps a person to flower? There's a lot to say here, but there are some basic principles.
Let’s start with a couple things that surely do not work:
1. Conversation. Our current habits of conversation keep out that which stimulates art.
2. Advice. It’s a spermicide.
Here’s a couple of things that do:
1. Anything that surprises the intellect. In a word: PLAY.
2. Noticing - and inviting in - that which is being left out.
Here is a little story of these principles in action:
Yesterday, this student spoke again of her yearnings. And she exhorted herself, once again, to be patient. She also said some other reasonable things, but sometimes the soul has had enough of good sense and I noticed I was having a weird intrusive thought. It persisted even though I told myself to pay attention. Finally, my mouth started to quiver because this thought was truly absurd, and I felt obliged to interrupt:
“Er, I am having a rogue thought. Do you want to hear it?”
“Sure, “ she said, “I’m sick of what I’m saying. “
“Alright, bear with me. This is odd, but as you were talking, I kept picturing something sprained or swollen, like, maybe, a finger, and I thought, ‘Wow, she’s really swollen.’ Then, immediately, I thought, ‘So what? That’s not exactly an insight.’ But it did seem true - I was genuinely struck by how your pain had to do with swelling.
Then, things got even weirder in my head. I remembered a story a doctor once told me. She was working on a cruise ship and they’d stopped overnight at a port of call. The next day, as she approached her clinic door, she walked past a long line of young men in staff uniforms. They were waiting for her. It turned out that these young men, while on leave, had indulged in some recreational Viagra and were now, each one, engorged, unpleasantly, and perhaps dangerously. So, as you were talking, I just kept imagining a row of young men in uniform, in a hallway, doubled over, aching, yearning, waiting...”
After I said this there was a long pause. Then she started to cackle, bless her, and I did too. It was the kind of uproarious, impolite laughter that operates like lightening - briefly, it illuminated the landscape.
I was glad then that I'd spoken up, because, if I know anything, it’s that the soul doesn't do well on a steady diet of reasonableness, but it perks right up if you make a new move, however slight. And it does enjoy a morsel of humor or story. Best, it rewards our courage whenever we creep to the edge of the known world.