FEAR AND ART

Let fear enlighten you, not enslave you.

(This post was written just before we invaded Afghanistan. Or Iraq. I can’t remember now.)

A poster on a discussion forum put into words what all of us have been feeling lately, but hate to admit out loud. The artist had a show coming up soon. Should they cancel it because of the impending war? Maybe no one would show up.

Many of us chimed in with a resounding “no!”, stressing the need to live life as normally as possible until forced to do otherwise.

The discussion eventually meandered into a discussion of other things. But the original post got me thinking about fear and anxiety in general.

Some of my favorite books about getting control of your life, have the word “fear” in them.

Feel the Fear (and Do It Anyway) by Susan Jeffers, is a pragmatic book about recognizing and acknowledging the anxiety/discomfort that comes from taking risks and making changes–but not letting that anxiety stop you.

Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel, I’ve read in chunks and bits, with some good sections about overcoming the obstacles to creativity. (The guy is more long-winded than I am, but there’s some good stuff in there.)

Another book I highly recommend is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It proposes that being creative is all about having fear and self-doubt. So embrace and move through them–it’s part of the territory. Just don’t give in to them.

The last is not a “creativity” book at all. It’s The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. In a nutshell, the book is about the knowing the difference between general, free-floating anxiety vs. the genuine fear that alerts us we are truly in danger.

When we are in real danger, we sense it, whether we acknowledge the signals or not. We know that strange guy who offered to help us made us uneasy. We know there’s something about that new person we’re dating that just isn’t right. We may tamp down that feeling because of social conditioning or magical thinking, but we do have it.

Anxiety is more encompassing and insidious. It keeps us from booking a flight after we read about a plane crash. It makes us wonder whether we should cancel that show when war seems imminent. It makes us worry about our kid walking to school by himself for the first time. It keeps us from dangling our feet over the edge of our inner tube while floating in the ocean. (Jaws, anyone?)

Statistics show us that we are more likely to die from a bee sting than a shark attack. Yet we don’t flee at the sight of a flower-filled meadow. If you look at cold hard facts, we are much more likely to buy the farm every day when we belt ourselves into our cars and head out to work or the mall: Car accidents kill more people each year than the total number of U.S. fatalities suffered during the entire Vietnam war. Yet I know of no one who has stopped driving their car because of the risk of an accident.

My advice to the original poster was:

I hesitate to add my two cents’ worth on this issue, since I don’t do many shows. But I think if you start making decisions based on fear and anxiety, you are heading down a slippery slope. Yes, it’s natural to worry about current events. Almost impossible not to. But when you start making business decisions based on “what if?”… well, “What if…?” can kill every effort you make to grow your business.

One way to think of this is: What’s the worst that could happen? If you bombed at this show, would it bring your business to a halt?

And if so, don’t you really take that chance at every show you do? Your thinking is, “We might be at war, and maybe no one will come.” What about, “It might rain and everyone would stay home.” Or maybe “There might be a strong wind, and my tent might blow away!” Or “The stock market might crash, and no one will be able to afford my work.” All those events are possibilities, too. (And actually, all of them did, indeed, come to pass.) You plan for them as best you can, evaluate the real, tangible risks–and then decide.

I’d say, unless the show promoters cancel the show, it would be good business to show up as you contracted to do. If, after doing a few shows, you decide current events are impacting your bottom line severely, then that’s the time to sit down and re-evaluate how you’re going to restructure your business to accommodate that.

It takes a certain amount of determination to turn this free-floating anxiety around, unless you’re by nature an optimist. And I’m not. I’m a born pessimist. And turning this attitude around is not a one-shot deal. I have to revisit it again, and again, and again. And sometimes I still need someone else to point it out to me. And sometimes, by reassuring someone else, I find I’ve reassured myself.

Some tips that have helped me:

Read a book, forum or article about dealing with fear. It sometimes helps to realize you are not the only person who’s feeling this way!

Find people whose judgment you’ve come to trust, and check in with them. Not someone you ought to trust, someone you’ve learned you can trust. Someone who’s earned your trust. For decisions about my kids and their growing need for personal responsibility and freedom, I have a very small collection of parents whose opinion I value. I know they have similar values, I know they respect my values, and I’ve learned to trust how they come to their decisions. They don’t belittle my concerns or beliefs, they just tell me how they got to their decision.

I’ve learned not to expect everything from one person, too. I’ve learned that I have parent-decision type friends, business/art type friends, family-dynamic expert type friends, etc. Find those solid people in every one of your life sectors. And when one of them goes through their own difficult times, recognize when they are not able to help you with that area (temporarily or permantly.) In other words, constantly evaluate your support structure.

Learn from yourself. Keep track of the times you’ve successfully battled anxiety, and remind yourself of those times. For myself, I find it immensely helpful to write about my anxieties. I keep a daily handwritten journal. I would die of embarrassment if anyone read of anything I’ve written there–I complain and swear a lot! But I also find that making my anxiety concrete by describing exactly what I’m afraid of, is the first step to working through it.

Get absurdly reasonable. Seek professional help if you have to. One strategy is called cognitive therapy, was hugely helpful for me. Here’s an example:

A patient says, “I’m terrified I’ll lose my job.”

Therapist: “Well…what would the logical consequences of this event be?” (An illogical conclusion might be, “I’ll become a bag lady!” That’s possible, but is it probable?)

Patient: “I wouldn’t make any money.”

Therapist: “So what would happen then?”

Patient: “I would have to find another job that maybe wouldn’t pay as much money.”

Therapist: “So what would happen then?”

Patient: “I couldn’t afford to make my mortgage payments.”

Therapist: “So what would happen then?”

Patient: “I’d have to sell my house.”

Therapist: “So what would happen then?”

Patient: “I’d have to find a cheaper place to live, like an apartment.”

Therapist: “And what would that mean?”

Patient: “My kid would have a smaller bedroom.”

Therapist: “So the end result of losing your job is that your kid would have to sleep in a little bedroom.”

Patient: “Oh. Okay. So I guess that wouldn’t be so terrible…”

This is a simple version, of course. And we all know some people do have worse consequences. But for most of us, yes, losing our job might been living in a place with tinier rooms. Been there, done that. Survived.

Recognize, as de Becker points out, that anxiety drains our batteries, leaving us vulnerable and unprepared for real danger when it crosses our path. Recognize that anxiety is our engine racing without engaging the clutch–it doesn’t take us anywhere, it’s just noisy and uses up a lot of gas.

Consider medication. I know this is not for everyone, and it doesn’t “fix” everything. But I found that a very low dose of anti-depressant was enough to take the crippling knife edge of anxiety away. Now I do less obsessing, and gentler fretting. (This was after trying exercise, massage, meditation, yoga, tai chi and my favorite, lots and lots of red wine.) (I still like these things, but I’m saner now. Really.)

Last, embrace your fears. Being involved in hospice has healed a lot of things. I’m not fear-less by any stretch of the imagination (and boy, can I stretch it!). When it comes to change, I still drag my feet. I still hate touching seaweed when I’m swimming.

But I’ve learned that many of the things I used to be afraid of, are simply not as bad as I’d imagined.

I accept some anxiety and fear as part of being human. They are my small, often annoying, ever-nagging companions. Even as I sit here, I am worrying about….ten different things. No, twelve. But I also look out the window and marvel at the first spring rain. I am so grateful for all the blessings in my life. I listen to the sound of my breath moving in and out, so regular and easy.

Life may be long or short, hard or sweet, with joyful ups and crazy downs A few little moments of terror and wonder thrown in. Usually a good mix. And it’s good to simply be alive, to savor this moment, with a little peace in my heart.

I wish the same for you.

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3 Comments

Filed under art, business, choices, courage, craft, creativity, fear of falling, mental attitude, world peace

3 responses to “FEAR AND ART

  1. Luann, you have got us dead center in your aim this time (again). While reading this excellent and very practical article, it occurred to me that performers have to break through fear EVERY time they perform, unless they are overconfident. Talk to a soloist in music, or an actor, or a dancer, and you will find something like a horse in the stall at the beginning of a race– all antsy and nervous and afraid. Some of that stuff goes into adrenalin that will keen up the performance, unless one passes out. And how to use it as a tool is what we learn by breaking through over and over…like practicing over and over until you get the know-how so that the fear becomes your tool.

  2. Pingback: COMMITMENT | Luann Udell

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