‘We are called upon to do something new, to confront a no man’s land, to push into a forest where there are no well-worn paths and from which no one has returned to guide us. This is what the existentialists call the anxiety of nothingness. To live into the future means to leap into the unknown, and this requires a degree of courage for which there is no immediate precedent and which few people realize.’
The Courage to Create is not a new book but it is most certainly an extraordinary one. It was first published in 1975 though some of the chapters were developed from lectures given up to twenty years earlier. Rollo May, who died in 1994, was an American existential psychotherapist and an author of a number of books, such as Man’s Search for Himself and The Cry for Myth. In the prologue to The Courage to Create, May mentions his initial reluctance to publish this collection of lectures because they felt to him, incomplete. When he finally agreed to publish them it was because he realized that ‘this ‘unfinished’ quality is ‘part of the creative process itself’.
In this far ranging exploration of creativity, May identifies courage as the most essential ingredient of the creative act. What is courage? he asks in the title chapter. He then goes on to explore what it is not in order to bring our focus towards what it might be. No, it is not the opposite of despair nor the absence of despair but rather ‘the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair’. Courage, he says, ‘requires centeredness within our own being’. It is not rashness or bravado and neither is it a virtue or a personal value, but rather it is ‘the foundation that underlies and gives reality to all other virtues and personal values.’ May goes on to explain that the ‘word courage comes from the same stem as the French word coeur, meaning heart’.
May identifies different kinds of courage: physical, moral, social . . . but of them all, it is creative courage, he argues, that is the most important, because it involves the ‘discovery of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which society can be built.’ This includes the discovery of new stories which have the power to break free of our social conditioning, thus threatening the status quo, which is always easiest to leave intact as so much personal and communal energy is devoted to protecting it. It takes courage to ‘see through’ in this way but the ‘seeing through’ is necessary if we are to break free of stagnation and develop further, both individually and socially. As May says, ‘In human beings courage is necessary to make being and becoming possible.’
‘If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also you will have betrayed your community in failing to make your contribution to the whole.’
This is an important point as it embraces our responsibility towards ourselves but also, and crucially, our responsibility to serve the community in which we live. This second responsibility is something that has too often been overlooked in our post-Thatcherite world in which the individual has been lauded at the expense of community. It is interesting to note that May is well known for the first part of this quote, which is repeated frequently in many circles, but rarely does this quote appear in its balanced entirety. As May writes later in this chapter, ‘Opposites though they are, both solitude and solidarity are essential if the artist is to produce works that are not only significant to his or her age, but that will also speak to future generations.’
According to May, ‘the creative artist and poet and saint must fight the actual (as contrasted to the ideal) gods of our society – the god of conformism as well as the gods of apathy, material success and exploitative power.’ This, he says is the obvious explanation for the fact that the truly creative act so often attracts the ‘wrath of the gods’ but there is something deeper, something that links perhaps to forgoing the intermediaries and seeking a direct connection with the source of life. With this connection comes a breaking free of the prisons in which we live, an increased intensity and vitality, and an ability to embrace chaos and transform it into harmony – all outcomes that are likely to be feared and rejected by society. Thus the creative path is not an easy one to take and it requires great courage with little expectation of conventional rewards, but nevertheless it provides its own kind of reward.
‘Whatever sphere we may be in, there is a profound joy in the realization that we are helping to form the structure of the new world. This is creative courage, however minor or fortuitous our creations may be.’
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