WAYBACK SATURDAY….er, Sunday. FEAR AND ART

This post first appeared on my now-defunct Radio Userland platform on Friday, March 21, 2003. At first, I thought “What war??” Then I realized a lot was going on since 9/11. Sound familiar? Other odd coincidences: I just finished reading The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker again, before I even found this article. I did finally find a copy and Art and Fear, about the fears that keep us from creating, and I still highly recommend it.
And though we now know that art shows will be on hold for a while, there are plenty of other ways we can keep our art biz going, by moving to online shopping and virtual events. Our creative work matters more than ever!
Fear and Art

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.

Three 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.  (There’s a highly recommended other book called “Art and Fear”, but I haven’t tracked down a copy yet, so I can’t refer to it.)

The last is not a “creativity” book.  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, but we did have it.

Anxiety is more encompassing and insidious.  It’s what keeps us from booking a flight after we read about a plane crash, or makes us wonder whether we should cancel that show when war seems imminent.  It’s what makes us worry about our kid walking to school by himself for the first time, or 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 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.  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 accomodate 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:

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.

Hand in hand with this approach is a tip given to me by a good friend who is a therapist.  He uses an approach called cognitive therapy, and gave this example of its use.  A patient says, “I’m terrified I’ll lose my job.”  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?  My friend would say, “What are the immediate consequences of losing your job?”  Patient: “I wouldn’t make any money.”  Friend: “So what would happen then?” P: “I would have to find another job that maybe wouldn’t pay as much money.”  F: “So what would happen then?” P: “I couldn’t afford to make my mortgage payments.”  F:”So what would happen then?”  P: “I’d have to sell my house.”  F: “So what would happen then?” P: “I’d have to find a cheaper place to live, like an apartment.”  F:  “And what would that mean?” P: “My kid would have a smaller bedroom.”  F: “So the end result of losing your job is that your kid would have to sleep in a little bedroom.”

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.

I’m so pleased with this car metaphor! Remember, anxiety is our lizard brain trying to protect us. Say “thank you, but I got this.” Not every thought is true.