Inspiration Creativity in Times of Crisis

Why is great art so often born of suffering? Here’s what the lives of creative luminaries—and the new psychology of post-traumatic growth—can teach us about transforming loss into creative gain.

Because of COVID-19, many of us are confined to our homes without our usual activities and cluttered schedules to keep us busy. Suddenly, we’ve received this strange gift of unstructured time.

On the Internet, that’s given rise to endless advice about how to maximize the time and optimize productivity while under quarantine. In case you hadn’t heard, Sir Isaac Newton came up with his theory of gravity and Shakespeare wrote King Lear during times of plague. What better time to write your best-selling novel or launch your six-figure online business, right?  

This is not one of those calls to increase your productivity or creative output while you stay inside. Please, don’t pressure yourself to create your magnum opus right now, or even to be as productive as you normally are. The global pandemic has changed our worlds, suddenly and profoundly. Some of you are directly grappling with COVID-19 or other traumas related to the outbreak. Some are out on the frontlines. Others are struggling to care for children and aging parents while maintaining normal workloads.

This is not one of those calls to increase your productivity or creative output while you stay inside.

It may not be the time for this article for you, and that’s perfectly OK. But at some point, if you're ready, I’d like to share an alternative perspective on the creative potential of the situation that might bring you hope and inspiration.

What we know from history and psychology is that creativity and innovation arise in times of crisis. When our lives and our world undergo drastic changes, our minds change, too—often opening up to a new level of our own creative potential.

This natural process happens over time. While over-working and productivity obsession is a sign of avoidance and denial, authentic creativity is just the opposite: an act of confronting and embracing our internal experience in whatever timing is natural and appropriate to us, whether it’s in the very moment of crisis or many years afterwards.

While over-working and productivity obsession is a sign of avoidance and denial, authentic creativity is just the opposite.

There is actually a scientific term for this process: post-traumatic growth. The term was coined in the ‘90s by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, University of North Carolina psychologists who were studying cases of individuals who experienced profound transformation as they coped with challenging life circumstances. There are now more than 300 scientific studies on the topic, and it’s been shown that up to 70% of trauma survivors report some form of positive psychological growth.

What Is It About Suffering?

Why do so many artists produce their best work during or following times of serious illness, trauma or loss? And why is it that major artistic movements tend to emerge in the aftermath of war, conflict and periods of social upheaval? In our book Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, my co-author Scott Barry Kaufman and I investigated this phenomenon of art born of adversity—and what we found was an extremely high correlation of creative achievement and personal growth with experiences of loss and hardship.

Spend enough time reading biographies of great artists and creative luminaries, and you will notice a theme: They are disproportionately littered with stories of physical and mental illness, early-life parental loss, abuse and abandonment, heartbreak, and tragedy. A near-universal pattern emerges: An artist’s best work follows their periods of deepest suffering.

Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica

John Milton wrote Paradise Lost after losing his wife, his daughter, and his eyesight. Van Gogh created Starry Night, along with some of his other most celebrated paintings, from the insane asylum in Saint-Remy while battling crippling anxiety, depression and possible bipolar disorder. Virginia Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse as a way to cope with the loss of her mother. There’s also Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Picasso’s Guernica, John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Amy Winehouse’s "Back to Black," to name a few personal inspirations.

Frida Kahlo is often taken as the prototype of the artist inspired by suffering. It was after a near-fatal bus accident which left her with multiple injuries and a lifetime of chronic pain that Kahlo picked up a paintbrush for the first time. The following year while in recovery from the accident, she created her first of many iconic self-portraits. One of her most celebrated self-portraits, Henry Ford Hospital, was created after a painful miscarriage. The painting depicts her on a hospital bed naked and bleeding, and, as she said, “carries with it the message of pain.” Painting was Kahlo’s primary tool for coping with a lifetime of physical and emotional pain.

Like Kahlo, the lives of many famous painters reveal periods of great creative achievement following times of debilitating and life-threatening illness. The year after being diagnosed with a fatal autoimmune disease that crippled his hands, Bauhaus painter Paul Klee created more than 1,200 works—including some of his largest, most original pieces. (“I paint in order not to cry,” he said.) Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe went through his most creatively fertile period, during which he undertook his most ambitious projects, after being diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. Just a year before his death in 1988, he had his first major exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

Battling with illness, and facing their own mortality, seemed to force these artists out of a mental space of habit, comfort and control—and into radical new perspectives and modes of expression. The work that they produced became a reflection of that, breaking stylistic restrictions and artistic boundaries to experiment with new forms and feelings.

Battling with illness, and facing their own mortality, seemed to force artists into radical new perspectives and modes of expression.

 

What explains this inner drive to create in the wake of loss? While there are many complex and highly individual factors, what it really comes down to is the meaning-making function of art. Art seeks to make sense of everything from our smallest sad moments to the most earth-shattering tragedies. It helps us to process and come to terms with the things in life that we can’t control and can’t really explain.

When we find meaning in our suffering, we heal and overcome. Meaning-making has been called the sixth stage of grief, coming after the stage of acceptance. As soon as we find meaning, our experience is transformed into something valuable and affirming. As the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” Creativity is one of the powerful tools we have for finding meaning in any circumstance.

When Things Fall Apart

In the past decade, new research has shed light on what’s in our heads as we undergo this alchemical process of transformation in the wake of trauma, and how it can lead to such heights of creative achievement.

Marie Forgeard, the foremost researcher studying the link between post-traumatic growth and creativity, showed that the link between extreme life challenges and creative achievement is not accidental. Studying the lives of famous artists and creative minds through history, Forgeard documented a consistent pattern of suffering—including loss, death of loved ones and mental and physical illness—becoming the motivation and inspiration to create.

Creativity is one of the most powerful tools we have for finding meaning in any circumstance. Viktor Frankl wrote, “In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”

 

In a study conducted in 2013 that involved 300 participants, she found that people who perceived experiencing high levels of distress as a result of a major life challenge or trauma also said that they experienced enhanced creativity. “The more distressing the experience in their lives, the more post-traumatic growth they experienced, and the more changes in creativity they also reported,” she said.

Losing a parent, being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, living through a war or global crisis—these are experiences that force us to let go of the illusion of control as we cope with events that are bigger than us. This stimulates creative thinking as we let go of our prescribed sense of “the way things are” to consider a world of new possibilities. As Forgeard explains, “Adverse events can be so powerful that they force us to think about questions we never would have thought of otherwise.”

Tedeschi and Calhoun use the metaphor of an earthquake to illustrate this process at work. Here’s what it looks like: To get by in the world, we develop and rely on a set of beliefs and assumptions about the world. For growth and transformation to occur, an event must crack open those belief systems. The trauma or adverse event shatters our worldviews, assumptions, and identities like an earthquake shatters the structures of a city. “A psychologically seismic event can severely shake, threaten or reduce to rubble” many of the mental structures that guide our thinking and behavior, they explain. The most foundational structures of our psyches crumble to pieces from the magnitude of the impact, and we experience an inner paradigm shift to a new reality.

After being shaken out of our ordinary perception, we are left to rebuild ourselves, our lives, and our understanding of reality. The greater the magnitude of the quake, the more structures we're forced to rebuild. From the rubble and destruction of everything we once knew, we are in a position to pursue entirely new, and potentially creative, opportunities. This often leads us to invest more of our time and energy in things that are truly meaningful to us—such as self-expression and creative pursuits.

It bears repeating that trauma is devastating, no matter what creative growth might occur in its aftermath. It can just as easily lead to loss and further struggle as gain. And despite what the myth of the “tortured artist” would have us believe, pain is not a requirement for producing great art. Beauty, joy, hope, and love also inspire great art. As Francis Bacon once said, “An artist must be nourished by his passions and by his despairs.”

Despite the myth of the tortured artist, pain is not a requirement for producing great art. Beauty, joy, hope, and love also inspire great art. What seems to be the determining factor for growth is that the experience is grounded in a sense of meaning.

 

The psychology of post-ecstatic growth has shown that the most elevated positive experiences in our lives can also act as a catalyst for personal and creative growth. What seems to be the determining factor for growth is that the experience is grounded in a sense of meaning. A spiritual awakening or moment of deep connection with nature, for instance, is more likely to trigger creativity than, say, landing a new job or buying a house.

The bottom line: Both the highest and lowest moments of our lives act as creative fertilizer. Any experience that shakes your world and challenges your assumptions can lead to heightened creativity and more authentic self-expression. Positive or negative, any experience that leads us into the unknown is also guiding us into the birthplace of creation.

Making the Space to Create

The most important key to embracing the process of post-traumatic growth is to not rush to get things done or figure out everything. Real creative growth happens at its own natural pace, which can’t be forced or rushed. Creativity thrives with mental breathing room, wide-open inner spaces to roam, and unstructured time to dream and reflect.

So when you’re ready  to take some real time and space for yourself, I hope you give yourself permission to dream, reflect, feel, and just be—and to allow your creativity to naturally arise from the deeper aspects of your being.

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