The Courage to Create

Inspired by Hesse’s tales, I decided to re-read Rollo May’s The Courage to Create. May, an existentialist psychologist, is one of the few modern psychologists that I actually enjoy reading, perhaps because he often sounds more like philosopher than a psychologist or perhaps because he spends as much time exploring exceptional people as he does disturbed people. Whatever the reason, I constantly find his books inspiring and insightful. The Courage to Create is particularly fascinating because it is devoted to the field that I have devoted much of my life to. It is well worth reading for anyone interested in literature, or the arts in general.

May explains the importance of courage in life by arguing that “a man or woman becomes fully human only by his or her choices and his or her commitment to them. People attain worth and dignity by the multitude of decisions they make from day to day. These decisions require courage. This is why Paul Tillich speaks of courage as ontological -it is essential to our being.” In other words, it takes courage do become fully human. It takes even more courage to challenge our common perception of reality.

Although people seldom think of artists as courageous, May makes an interesting distinction between moral courage, the kind of courage most people think of, and creative courage:

Whereas moral courage is the righting of wrongs, creative courage, in contrast, is the discovering of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which a new society can be built.

When we consider how difficult and alienating it is to see the world differently than our neighbors (consider those who publicly condemned the popular bombing in Afghanistan), it is easy to see why it takes courage to suggest new ways of seeing reality. Any teacher who has tried to teach literary works that challenge the morals of their district’s patrons will realize how much more courage it must have taken to have actually written those ideas.

While May argues that the courage to create is a necessary part of all aspects of society, including technology, business, and teaching, he also argues that those who:

… present directly and immediately the new forms and symbols are the artists-the dramatists, the musicians, the painters, the dancers, the poets, and those poets of the religious sphere we call saints. They portray the new symbols in the form of images-poetic, aural, plastic, or dramatic, as the case may be. They live out their imaginations. The symbols only dreamt about by most human beings are expressed in graphic form by the artists.

Those of us drawn to art may not be able to articulate this new vision of life, but we certainly sense that we are seeing something new, seeing life in a new way. It is this feeling that brings us back to these works, brings us back until we either integrate them into our own life, or reject them. In this sense, we, too, are participating in the creative act.

May argues that artists are, ultimately, rebels, perhaps the most dangerous rebels of all because they constantly challenge the status quo. "Forever unsatisfied with the mundane, the apathetic, the conventional, they always push on to newer worlds. Thus are they the creators of the "uncreated conscience of the race." The artist’s audience, of course, becomes equally dangerous because once it recognizes the brilliance of the artist’s perception it is bound to participate in his rebellion, perhaps by the very act of experiencing his art.

Whether we are the artist or the artist’s audience, May argues that there is a profound joy that more than compensates for the anxiety we feel when we rebel against the status quo:

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. We can then say, with Joyce, Welcome, O life! We go for the millionth time to forge in the smithy of our souls the uncreated conscience of the race.

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