Interlocking needs

The process of creative expression, the development of interpersonal intimacy, the struggle for a sense of community and for societal change, and the search for meaning in life are themes are interrelated. The driving forces of human life, the forces that make life rewarding and fulfilling rather than wretched and empty are inextricably intertwined with each other.

There is a natural, if not always symmetrical, synergy among core human needs. Sometimes the impact of one area of our lives with another is instant and dramatic, while at others it is more subtle, more complex, but anyone of our core pursuits effects other aspects of our lives. Our most passionate loves feed our creativity and our ability to express ourselves creatively stirs our passions. To struggle to make the world a more equitable, more humane place, we usually must learn how to collaborate with our fellow humans, to work together as a community. To seek meaning in life, we need to tap into all our creative and interpersonal resources.

Certainly there are exceptions, enormously creative men and women who have led deplorable personal lives. Some artists and writers about have artists have even argued that isolation, even antagonism toward one’s contemporaries, was essential to their devotion to their artistic creativity. And there are similarly numberless wonderfully compassionate and loving people who have apparently contributed little creatively or societally. Likewise, there are many routes to finding meaning in life.

Yet, despite the notable exceptions, ardent pursuit of the development of one area of potential often facilitates growth in other areas. Developing one’s artistic expression, for example, not only brings one into contact with other creative individuals, it also deepens one’s sense of oneself, one’s respect for oneself, as well as respect for others who have risen to the challenge of creativity. A stronger sense self can forms a firmer basis for relating to others, either in terms of individual intimacy or a broader sense of community.

The stereotype of artists as social isolates largely ignores the fact that art requires a capacity to evoke a response in the art’s audience. This suggests that even the most uncommunicative artist has a capacity to empathically connect with others through the artist’s creation itself. It may be true that, for some artists, the creative product becomes their primary means of connecting with others, while common “social skills” are neglected. Rather than saying that such persons’ art substitutes for relating, it would be more accurate to say that their art is their means of relating.

Some artists face a more direct challenge to integrating their work and their personal life. Novelists whose work is heavily autobiographical as well as non-fiction memoirists may quite directly alienate friends and family when their pursuit of “truth” collides with sensitive personal concerns. There is always the danger that an intimate relation may feel exposed or exploited by such an author. Whether the value of the “truth” of the author balances out the pain inflicted depends on the specific details, the specific circumstances. Often the social isolation or harm has more to do with character of the artist than being either cause or effect of devotion to creativity. More often, however, the relationship between creative productivity and interpersonal intimacy is far less complicated. The stereotype ignores the more common effect that deepening one’s creativity brings one into contact with other creative individuals and enhances the quality of one’s life, thus opening a person up to more fulfilling possibilities.

Similar dynamics apply to social involvement beyond the individual level. Becoming committed to a partner may lead to cutting off connection to people beyond that partnership. This is disturbingly common in contemporary Euro-American societies where uniting in marriage defines a point in time when even modest levels of intimacy must be eschewed in the name of the sanctity of the marriage bond. Contemporary mores require a commitment not only to sexual fidelity, but frequently mark the end of non-sexual friendships that had some degree of intimacy. The frequency in which sexual moral imperatives are broken and liaisons carried on surreptitiously often reveals the hypocrisy of those who pontificate most moralistically. While it is clear that, apart from moral considerations, extra-marital sexual relationships are highly likely to disrupt if not destroy a partnership, there is no necessary reason, that forming an intimate partnership should preclude non-sexual intimacy. The natural psychological tendency could potentially move in the exact opposite direction. That is to say, the closer, deeper, more satisfying, and more intimate a connection one is able to make with one person should encourage a person to feel more able to connect to others. In an ideal world intimate caring should stimulate further intimacy, greater capacity for compassion, a deeper sense of the value of oneself and of one’s relationships.

Going yet a step further, why should caring about one’s closest relations not lead to a more compassionate relationship with one’s community and, ultimately, with the community of humankind? Again, contemporary social mores impede extending our caring beyond our immediate relations. The capacity to empathize, however, is not narrowly tied to a specific relationship. If a person can fully connect with the experience of another, it is only natural that this empathic connection be enhanced in relationship to other relationships, even other communities, and, ultimately, to the community to which we all belong. Unfortunately lines are frequently foisted upon us. We are encouraged by many social forces to care about “us” but not about “them.” Religious and national over-identification simultaneously encourage us to empathize with those in our own group, while cutting off empathy for those who differ. It is like water held behind a dam. Societal barriers dehumanize those who are “different,” impeding the natural flow of the capacity to empathize with our fellow humans.

Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning