The Problem of Pain: Why hurting artists must keep creating

Times of trouble should inspire us to make beauty out of brokenness

The wail of a blues singer. The mournful tone of a requiem. The sad echoes of a song to a departed loved one.

Pain has always motivated artists to create expressions to deal with loss and sadness, and some of these expressions become our most beloved works of art. We channel our wounds into works full of emotion. In fact, sometimes it seems we are at our creative best when we feel the worst.

Why is that? Is pain a necessary part of being a great artist? Do we have to go through the hurts in order to make art that can heal?

We all wish we could avoid the struggles of life and constantly live in the glow of joy and success. But that’s not the reality we face. We live in a broken world, and broken people break things, including the hearts of creative people.

The question then, isn’t whether pain is necessary to create, because the nature of reality will produce pain in all of us. The question is; what will we do with the pain?

In the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, uttered these words after having the orchestra perform Mahler’s Second Symphony, which is also known as “the Resurrection”:

We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

A prophet in ancient times faced a similar moment of pain in his native land. Rather than sinking into mourning, he penned what would be his ultimate response.

To care for the needs of all who mourn in Zion,
    give them bouquets of roses instead of ashes,
Messages of joy instead of news of doom,
    a praising heart instead of a languid spirit.

When we artists are faced with pain, we can use it to fuel our passion; to express life where death once proclaimed victory.  To create is to proclaim that life is still worth living, and that darkness can only temporarily mask what will one day be a triumph. That is why our greatest works are often inspired by our greatest wounds, because we are designed to transform hurts into works of healing.

Our pain may not be our preference, bur our hearts can use it to produce something beautiful.

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