An Essay on Suffering, Creativity and Hope
By Paul Richardson
This article is written in response to a recent tragedy. A friend ended his own life on Sunday morning, January 22, 2012. He was an artist.
Throughout history, the most enduring creative expressions are most often created within or just after moments of social upheaval, war, grief, chaos or disaster. It would be difficult to overstate this phenomenon. Consider the context in which John Milton penned his epic masterpiece Paradise Lost. “His son was dead, his daughters estranged, two marriages ended, his eyesight departed, his public image disgraced, his friends judicially murdered or fled into exile.” Miguel de Cervantes was the greatest novelist of his century. He was also enslaved for five years in Algiers. His life is described as “endlessly sorrowful and painful …” Aleksandra Solzhenitsyn was tortured, suffering for eight years in Soviet labor camps.
Victor Hugo was already a prolific writer when, in 1843, he lost his daughter in a drowning accident. He was so deeply affected by this tragedy that his pen remained silent for almost a decade. Something miraculous took place during those silent years. Hugo would come storming back with a new wave of poetry and writings that included Les Miserables, his masterpiece about the resurgence of hope that would secure him as one of the greatest French writers of all time.
I am fascinated by individuals who break through humanity’s usual barriers and limitations. As I have tried to understand the substance in their lives which lifts them to such creative heights, I am in awe at the numbers of them who encounter unusual pain and suffering when they are children. As a boy, for example, Charles Dickens labored in the grime of a paste blacking factory. Isaac Newton was abandoned by his mother at the age of three. J.S. Bach’s mother died when he was nine and his father followed her eight months later. Oscar Wilde’s little sister died unexpectedly at the age of eight. One study estimates that of eminently creative individuals, 28% lose their parents as children, in comparison with eight percent of the general population.
At the age of six, the novelist James Matthew Barrie, who wrote The Little White Bird and the successive stage play The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, lost his brother David in an ice skating accident. It was described as a “catastrophe beyond belief” for his mother. Young James grew up in the fallout of her grief, often hearing her groan that her only happiness was found in the knowledge that her dead son would never grow up. James’ experiences would eventually rise through his pen to become Peter Pan, one of the most adored characters to ever grace the pages of children’s literature.
Consider the writer who swept our hearts and imaginations away into Narnia, showing us what it feels like to playfully romp with delight in the arms of Aslan? C.S. Lewis typed with creative magic. In what circumstance was that brilliance forged? When he was ten years old, his mother fell ill with cancer and slipped out of his world into eternity. Meanwhile his father sent him off to a boarding school. It wasn’t long before little Clive’s imagination rose on the wings of his grief. And in the process he would learn to awaken hope in the hearts of other children. The big-eyed delight in the eyes of every child reading of Narnia quietly originates in another child’s anguish.
Lewis wrote that God “whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, and shouts in our pains.” He called pain “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Jean-Paul Sartre called suffering “the raw material for beauty.” From my perspective, there is an unmistakeable relationship between suffering and creative power. The secret of that power is not suffering itself, but the hope that is forged in the soul while suffering. Romans 5:3-4 explains this relationship. Hope is born in suffering, which produces perseverance, which gives birth to character, which blossoms into hope. By hope ἐλπίς, the Apostle Paul was not referring to the fast food flicker of optimistic euphoria that we sometimes associate with this word. Hebrews 6:19 says, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain …” Hope is the anchor of the soul. A soul empty of hope is anchorless in the raging, unpredictable and disappointing voyage through life. Hope is the joyful anticipation of the good while in the midst of a trial. Hope, by its very nature, cannot exist apart from pain.
Walking amidst this great crowd of humanity are the rarest of artists. They are the masters, who create life changing, breath taking works of art. Artistic talent alone is powerless to produce such masterpieces. Their art confronts us with an audacious faith in providence. Their creative expressions lift up our eyes and plant a resolve in our hearts to rise again. Whatever their genre of creativity, they simply cannot be ignored. None of us are ever quite the same after being confronted by their art forms. These are the great artists whose creative outflow is mysteriously illuminated with an enduring and radiant hope. Almost without exception, these individuals have been lifted up through some inferno of hellish darkness. On their ascent, they’ve snatched up a handful of hope, anchored it to their souls and carried it with them through life.
Hope is an enduring and confident determination that the sun will rise. Gentle light will melt the darkness into a soft gray, then slowly fill up the bedroom window. Soon the brilliant sun will sweep away the night, lighting up your tear stained pillow. The Voice of God is heard in the morning. “Oh, faithful one. Your beautiful soul is formed out of a collision between your pain and my life giving, creating words. The wreckage from these collisions form the textures by which I, the greatest of all artists create My masterpieces. See how you separate the curtains, push the windows wide open and feel the rushing breeze of a new day on your face. You will rise. You will most certainly turn your face toward the cold, biting wind and live again. Just as the radiant colors of dawn are born in the turmoil of light overcoming darkness, you will emerge through the blinding confusion of your ephemeral and seemingly chaotic nothingness.
Hope is a creative force that explodes from within us, casting light across the canvas. Ronald Lopez was a gifted artist. He did amazing things with his natural talents, and he was a master at painting murals. He was an advocate for artists, and his work touched many lives. I was inspired by what Ronald created in Istanbul. Apparently, his life more recently took a downward turn. I feel that I can relate. I know how it feels to wake up in the night, wondering if life is worth living. I know what it means to be tortured by fear, anxiety, guilt, self doubt and depression. And yet, without exception, after each night spent in the valley of the shadow of death, God has gifted me with a glorious sunrise. I suspect that God was forming in Ronald Lopez the raw materials for an explosion of beauty. His most creative gifts to humanity and God were most certainly in front of him.
No matter how blinding the night, no matter how disgraceful our failures may be, there is always, always, always a reason to wait for another day.