Episode 16: Purpose and Action
Today’s is the seventh episode in the nine-part series “How Purpose Heals Depression,” a series based on my book The Van Gogh Blues, which has just appeared in paperback. In this series we look at the relationships among creativity, meaning, and depression and answer some fundamental questions about why creative people like you and me have an extra measure of depression to deal with, the measure that arrives because of our existential concerns and because of the way that we experience meaning as challenging and problematic. In today’s show, we look at the idea that purpose, for it to be real, must be expressed in concrete actions—actions that then help heal depression.
Today’s is the seventh episode in the nine-part series “How Purpose Heals Depression,” a series based on my book The Van Gogh Blues, which has just appeared in paperback. In this series we look at the relationships among creativity, meaning, and depression and answer some fundamental questions about why creative people like you and me have an extra measure of depression to deal with, the measure that arrives because of our existential concerns and because of the way that we experience meaning as challenging and problematic. In today’s show, called “Purpose and Action,” we look at the idea that purpose, for it to be real, must be expressed in concrete actions—actions that then help heal depression. Let’s begin!
There is no meaning without action. I use phrases like “making meaning” and “forcing life to mean” to express the idea that meaning does not exist until it is made and that life has no meaning until a meaning is forced upon it. Nothing could be emptier or sadder than to think endlessly about meaning but refrain from making any, to pine for meaning but not to work for meaning, or to expect relief to arrive as you brood and worry.
Loving someone is action. Painting is action. Raising money for your documentary film is action. Thinking about your scientific theory is action. Playing catch with your daughter is action. Singing for an audience of ten thousand is action. Singing for an audience of one is action. Getting up from where you are sitting and going over to your writing pad and squeezing out five words is action. Not drinking when you are trying not to drink is action. Defending first principles is action. Making amends is action. Revising short stories you wrote twenty years ago and submitting them today is action. Joining the Resistance is action. Creating is action.
We all keep busy, but that is not the same as taking action. We know the difference between busyness and action by the way it feels in our body and by what it does for our heart. It may be that on a given day making a pot of soup feels like right action in support of our life plan, say because we are making it for friends out of a conscious effort to relate. On another day making a pot of soup feels only like busy work, because we know that we are avoiding our creative work and squandering our time. Making a pot of soup, writing a short story, taking a day job, leaving a day job, anything we do is right action only when it is right action.
To take the action that we want to take we have to brave anxiety, opt to matter, and engage in the tasks I’ve been describing in this series. To take even the simplest right action--writing a page of your screenplay, taking your saxophone out of moth balls, tackling the synopsis of your novel--often involves self-repair and transformation. To return to your saxophone after a decade of pining for music or to vacuum when vacuuming feels beneath your dignity are gigantic actions, heroic actions. An important action does not have to take you half-way around the world and may only cost you the expenditure of a few hundred calories, but it may also require incredible courage.
The Baroque composer and singer Barbara Strozzi, born in 1619, could not sing in public. Her culture would not allow it. What action did she take? Can you guess? Rather than abandoning music, she brought in her audience. She performed in her own home and became one of the best-loved and best-known composers and singers of the Baroque era. Janet Nichols explained:
Barbara Strozzi never performed anywhere but in her own home. She became an expert in writing chamber vocal works, music meant to be sung in a small room rather than a large opera house or concert hall. She composed over a hundred songs, including many for solo voice with keyboard or lute accompaniment. The large number and the high quality of her compositions make her one of the most important composers of chamber vocal music of the Baroque era. She may be the only composer in all of history who earned wide acclaim without ever leaving her own home.
It is especially the act of creation that requires bravery and demands action. Our ability to make meaning and to maintain meaning is threatened by the intrinsic hardness of creative work. It is odd but true that most creators do not recognize this reality. Instead of crediting creating with being profoundly taxing, they chalk up their difficulties to personal weakness. This can’t be their intention, any more than it would be the intention of a hiker who comes to the edge of a cliff to blame himself for not being able to fly. The hiker would say to himself, “How can I get down there? By rappelling? By going all the way around, even though it will take me a week?” Creators, faced by this cliff, tend to say, “I am such an idiot!”
Creators blame themselves for the fact that it is hard to write a good novel or to validate string theory. They come to the edge of their work and see the cliff, they find themselves in the middle of their work and experience the vertigo of not knowing, and instead of naming the cliff as the obstacle, they berate themselves. Why do they do this self-unfriendly thing? Because they know that they often do not try hard enough, so they generalize from this secret truth to the falsehood that it is all their fault, that their song or theory would materialize if only they had more guts, more discipline, a larger talent, more staying power.
What they need is more action and less berating. The hiker must do something or remain at the edge of that cliff until he starves to death. Creators must take action in service of their creative work. Rappelling may frighten them. Going around may take a year or a decade. Turning around and going home is no answer, as that is a path without heart. They must go forward, whether that means jumping off the cliff or taking the slow way around, composing a symphony in a hour, like Mozart, or composing a symphony in a decade, like Beethoven.
Action is a wonderful tonic. Action heals. Maybe you are in a dead-end day job that is making you half-insane as you see your time slip away. Every day you work hard, but on precious few days do you take action in support of your life plan, your creativity, or your dreams. Of course you are depressed, since the facts of existence disappoint you and you are not making much meaning. It will only be an action that heals you: the action of taking a night class in Egyptian history, to give your brain something to chew on, the action of starting out every morning on your novel or making it to your studio every evening, the action of loving someone who, quite coincidentally, earns a living at work he or she enjoys, which allows you to quit your day job, the action of launching a new career, the action of sitting yourself down and determining if your day job can be made to feel more meaningful.
Our actions are our accomplishments. It is not satisfying to have a thought pop into our head and not write it down. It is not satisfying to dream of love but never to hold a real lover’s hand. What if you could do nothing to right wrongs? What if you found a pointed stick but never drew with it in the dirt? Could a brain kept alive by artificial means be anything less than permanently depressed? Unable to act, it might calculate pi to the thousandth place and still die of a broken heart.
When you don’t feel like acting, all hell breaks loose. Then you question your personality, the facts of existence, and the meaning of your life. You come home tired from work; you don’t feel up to facing your nonfiction book; you start drinking; you sink. Your musical is stuck; it seems shallow and unmusical; you can’t find the energy to revise it; you sink. When you say to yourself, “I can’t,” you are also saying, “Depression, come right in.” You must teach yourself how to act when you don’t feel like acting, when it is gloomy out, when chaos surrounds you, when your inner life is roiling madly, when you can’t imagine acting.
It isn’t that you must stay in a whir of motion. But you must learn to take the right action at the right split second. The split second when you are about to say “I can’t create today” is one of those split seconds. The split second when you hear yourself say “I am a loser and the world sucks” is one of those split seconds. Take yourself by the shirt and pull yourself in the direction of action. Maybe you’ll go kicking and screaming, maybe you’ll experience vertigo and a panic attack, and maybe you’ll feel sick to your stomach. But you will thank yourself later.
That ends today’s show. Tune in next week for another episode in the “How Purpose Heals Depression” series. To learn more about this subject, please take a look at my book The Van Gogh Blues, which just appeared in paperback from New World Library. To subscribe to “your purpose-centered life,” please visit personallifemedia.com, where you’ll also find my blog. You can drop me an email at [email protected]; and I hope that you’ll visit my website to learn more about my books and services. That’s ericmaisel.com—(spelled out).
Thank you for listening!