I feel like I’ve just unlocked something monumental regarding my own relationship with anxiety.
I was reading The Courage to Create, a book published in 1975 by existential psychologist Rollo May and it introduced a powerful framing of anxiety that I hadn’t considered before but is potentially life-changing. I guess we’ll see.
I’ve felt different kinds of anxiety all my life. But there is one type which I was struggling to pinpoint, explain, and put into words. I knew it was different because it has especially been crippling the past few years of my life. I feel bouts of inexplicable emptiness, sadness, and oftentimes meaninglessness, which if you know me personally, might sound surprising because I can come off as a deeply engaged and passionate person full of joie de vivre. But this feeling isn’t exactly new, I just felt it a lot more recently.
This type of anxiety has both been chronic, something I felt regularly, but also has caught by surprise, often when I least expect it, and sometimes even in the most bewildering times, like when things are actually going great in my life. It has been particularly troubling for me because by any standard of measure, I’ve never felt more blessed: I’m healthy, I love and am proud of what I do for a living, I feel like I’ve never been better and confident as a designer in my entire career, I have a wonderful partner I love and continue to grow with, I have a great place I live in with food and warmth never an issue, I’m surrounded by love from family and friends (should I choose to be surrounded by aforementioned love, which is another topic on its own). In short, I’m at a point in life where I feel I have everything I need.
And yet, there is a nagging feeling inside that was ravaging me from within. It was like a boogeyman that would arise from the night after a hard day’s work filled with joy, pride, and satisfaction. Bam. It would hit me, not like a speeding train but more like a slow moving truck that I was half-expecting to hit me and yet I still couldn’t move away from it. And it would send me in a spiral. And this lingering dread haunted me on a regular basis. And my defense mechanism would be to retract from the world, to distract myself so I would not feel this simmering pain, and I would be in my own head and pretend everything is okay, until I wake up the following day, and do the cycle over again. Now, I’d still do my regular habits and things would seem fine and I’d have a great day, but it would come back at night like clockwork.
What was deeply confusing for me was I do not recall feeling this particular anxiety this deeply when I had none of the things that I have now. Almost a decade ago I was struggling with where my future was headed, I did not have the same security I feel now, I didn’t have any money, access to food and warmth was not as easy, my relationships were not where they are today. I was still anxious then but that one felt clearer to me. It was an anxiety for survival: Am I going to make it out of my situation? Am I going to improve my life? Am I going to make something out of myself? But I did not have this feeling of emptiness that now feel despite having all the things I only dreamed of not long ago. By every definition, I should feel fulfilled, and yet I feel a deep void within me that I can’t quite put my finger on. What is it?
I hesitate to give it a name because I don’t think I’ve quite unlocked or understood it fully yet. But what I’m slowly discovering is what I feel deep down is perhaps an anxiety related to creativity, or lack thereof. Specifically, an anxiety felt because I haven’t been creating things that I felt allowed me to create meaning, an internal urge that is not related to any extrinsic reward or achievement at a job or anything else. This is purely related to a process of trying to create art for its own sake, to derive meaning out of life through one’s own lenses. In other words, I’ve been ignoring a calling I feel deep inside to try to carve out a “universality of meaning” through my own creativity.
This sounds really abstract but not for artists. Rollo May pointed out a study in which people where given Rorscach-like series of tests, and a group of “normal” people selected “the orderly, symmetrical cards as the designs they liked the most—they like their universe to be in shape.” The same test was given to “creative persons”—those who were recognized by their peers as having distinguished contributions to their field:
But the creative persons selected chaotic, disorderly cards—they found these to be more challenging and interesting. They could be like God in the Book of Genesis, creating order out of chaos. They chose the “broken” universe; they got joy out of encountering it and forming it into order. They could accept their anxiety and use it in molding their disorderly universe “closer to their heart’s desire.”
Reading “accept their anxiety” was a lightbulb moment for me. The anxiety I feel is directly tied to this immediate tension between being a particular kind of person and seeing chaos everywhere. And in that very moment of this realization, anxiety exists. This is not a new or special feeling. I’ve felt this since childhood. The differences was, even in moments where I felt I was fighting for my survival some years ago, I “accepted” this anxiety and did my best to create order out of chaos, to create meaning out of meaninglessness, despite my lack of skills and resources. I wasn’t as good nor was I equipped, and yet I still tried with all my might to create something—through writing, through design, through art. I tried to make sense of the world around me wrapped in emotion and vulnerability because I felt like I had nothing to lose and because it was a compulsion that I needed to address. In a sense, maybe it was my survival mechanism.
Whereas these days, I’ve thought of this creative process as a tradeoff—one where I am putting forward progress in my career, my job, my status, my finances in the back-burner should I choose to spend my finite time creating. I viewed it as costly because in logical terms, it didn’t add to the things I already had. It wasn’t an “investment” towards my future and creating had an “opportunity cost” to the things that I had to do.
But the real cost was I no longer felt alive. I felt pain I didn’t know how to cure. I have all these things that I didn’t have before that I can’t even enjoy because I knew something was missing deep down. I viewed this anxiety as something to get rid of, something to distract myself from, something to ignore, but it only came back to me, day after day, night after night, week after week, with a deep sense of dissatisfaction even when I have everything I could need.
This is when it occurred to me that this anxiety is actually a calling. That sounds absurd to read because how can crippling anxiety be seen as a calling? First, one doesn’t feel this particular anxiety if they don’t feel this tension between how the world is and how the world can be. This same compulsion to turn chaos into order feels like a curse because it is ever-present, it is not something one can just get rid of, and in a way, it may be something one can never fully satisfy themselves of. For some people—and I’m in this category—things can perpetually be better because things aren’t good enough. But more specifically, these kinds of people felt like they need to do something about it.
But in this exact moment of tension is where passion can come alive. Rollo May describes passion not as a “quantity of emotion” but rather a “quality of commitment”—it is precisely this openness and desire to confront the encounter that creates passion. You can’t confront the encounter between yourself and this moment of tension unless you first accept the anxiety. And you want to confront the encounter because it just might lead you to ecstasy—this heightened sense of consciousness, a “temporary transcending of the subject-object dichotomy.”
As much as it might feel like a curse, this is when it occurred to me that this particular anxiety can rather be a gift. It is an itch to be scratched, one that can only be relieved by accepting the anxiety, confronting the encounter, and having the courage to create something, to make something that was not there before, to create meaning out of meaninglessness, to hopefully reach ecstasy no matter how fleeting.
And this is only possible through the artist looking at themselves as a vessel, to allow themselves to be open and receptive to the things around them, to how they’re feeling, to the ebbs & flows of life, but to also have the courage to create not just to relieve themselves of this anxiety, but to make something out of it that hopefully contributes something new to the universe.
January 1, 2023