The Stress Doc examines the semantic and psychological, imaginative and
interpersonal connections between grief and creativity. Five dynamic steps
illuminate the forces that trigger, rumble and quake as well as nurture these
parallel and interdependent processes: destruction, suffering, letting go and
wandering, illumination and transformation.
Building a Bridge Between Grief and Creativity
Five Strategic Steps for Expanding Your Horizons
Themes of death and rebirth have been ever-present in art and mythology,
science and religion, that is, in the oral, visual and written history of the
human species. Acknowledging this broad cultural perspective, still, such
universal and seemingly mythic processes of "wandering in (and returning
from) the desert" chastened or emerging enlightened from "the dark
night of the soul" often seem beyond human reach. Can the process of
renewal become more personal, tangible and applicable for our individual
stories? More specifically, can you transform lifes crises and daily
battles, especially key losses and painful transitions, into a psychological and
interpersonal battlefield of your own design? And further, can this
angst-driven arena call forth not just psychological growth but heroic
risk-taking and imaginative problem solving? (Nothing like an understated
opening paragraph. ;-)
As this is truly a spiritual undertaking, lets begin with "the
word": When you read "Grief," what words or images come to
mind? Death? Mourning? Crying? Shock? Depression? Dark Cloud? Confusion?
Loneliness? Rage? Fear? Loss? Clearly, all are familiar
associations. But what about these terms: Relief? Release?
Exploration? Mental Focus? Contemplation? Conflict? Future Possibilities? Silver
Lining? Discovery? Passion? Rebirth? Wisdom? The spectrum of responses
reflects that grief may well be multifaceted. Surely, poignant sadness may
envelop one when a loved aged parent, a stroke victim these last few years,
finally succumbs. But so may relief.
Akin to the broad concept of "crisis" when a person faces a
critical challenge that defies his or her present capacity for coping or problem
solving, grief is double-edged, fraught with "danger and
"opportunity." (Actually, these terms symbolize the two Chinese
characters that depict the word crisis.)
Bridging the Emotional-Conceptual Gap
Toward this end, the following essay will open key semantic, psychological and
behavioral windows shedding some light on the life-giving connection between
human loss and individual and/or communal rejuvenation: how to build a
bridge from the exhaustions and eruptions of grief to the mental meanderings and
concentrated convulsions of creativity. Can the crisis and grief processes
intersect forming a tangible and imaginative path more circuitous than
straightforward, for sure to the promised mindscape of milk and honey?
How about envisioning this grief period of exhaustion this time of seemingly
lying fallow as both underground psychic wellspring and richly stirred
emotional soil? And that griefs ultimate purpose, over time, is
regeneration and/or rejuvenation? Can a courageous mix of pain and
passion, persistence and patience nurture the flowering of a fertile mind,
cultivate a sometimes racing yet peaceful heart that ebbs and flows while
acknowledging the soul that dances in the wind with its own natural
rhythm? Can the process of mourning gradually give up a vibrantly alive,
colorful and creative spirit and output?
As I once penned:
Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion,
each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the
clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in
time. In mystical fashion, like Spring upon Winter, the seeds of
dissolution bear fruitful renewal.
A key point is that fruitful renewal through grieving not only occurs in
response to literal death but from an array of life and loss experiences.
We can even forge a vital rebirth of community in response to the decay of
organizational integrity or dysfunctional dis-ease. Let me
illustrate. Years ago a department manager was lamenting how her
staff seemed to be fighting the automation of record keeping. The tip of
the iceberg was group resistance to a new administrative form. When this
form would run out, employees would return to the old standard. Verbal
exhortation and a stream of memos had not stemmed the countervailing tide.
And like a stormy tide, a tense undercurrent was gathering strength.
After a period of uneasy workplace assessment, in a brainstorming session with
the manager, it was clear that employee input on form design, especially among
those directly effected, had not been solicited. Further discussion
confirmed my suspicion that group resistance and worker slow down had as much to
do with top-heavy implementation as with employee trepidation. Folks were
chafing under a loss of control and feeling like manipulated pawns, if not like
children who should be seen (following orders) and not heard.
An idea popped in my head: "While you may have missed the boat on the
front end, theres opportunity on the back side. Why not plan a forms
funeral?" While perhaps absurd, we went ahead anyway. The
frustrated employees wrote serious and playful eulogies to the old form (and the
former data processing system) while raising both negatives and positives
(or, at least hoped for adaptations) regarding the new. This communal
catharsis significantly assuaged past hurts and strengthened group morale.
Our imaginative theater of the absurd also helped this department bury
unilateral decision-making while resurrecting productivity levels and team
cooperation. (I dare say we had a semantic, if not spiritual, awakening --
discovering that "esprit de corps" resurrecting, of course, an
"esprit de corpse." ;-)
Using our narrative as a springboard, here are "Five Strategic
Steps: From Grieving and Believing to Creative Conceiving":
1. "Every act of creation is first of all an act of
destruction." Pablo Picasso, the artistic giant, captures the
fundamental truth of grief and creativity. We no longer see life with the
fresh eyes of a child. We often dont notice problems or possibilities until
something is broke or unless were in enough pain. We are blind to our
assumptions and habitual coping patterns (for example, management making
unilateral decisions) until throttled by or shocked into a new reality.
And this anxious or frustrating development, such as protracted overt and covert
defiance by employees, can no longer be ignored or tolerated. Business as
usual no longer works.
You must be willing to face the often-painful truth that, for whatever reasons,
your niche of success has turned into a ditch of excess. While managements
change agent tactics may have been misguided, the employees, too, were clinging
to old familiar ways, fighting the uncertain and uncomfortable path of new
learning, productivity and growth. Remember the Stress Docs burnout
axiom: When Mastery times Monotony provides an index of Misery!
So how can one resist premature burial or burnout and rise again or, at least,
rekindle that creative spark?
2. "For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
While destruction or defeat ignites the process of necessary loss, eventually
you must embrace lost dreams, forego dazzling illusions and confront the
emptiness within and the arid or toxic ambiance about. You must forsake
the familiar and grapple with assembling past, present and future pieces of some
mysterious puzzle unfolding before you. What or who will sustain us
through this confusion, fear or heart-wrenching pain?
You need to reach out to others and to find personal energy and space for
raging, sobbing and fretting. (Sometimes you may need to do consulting,
for example, exploring antidepressant medication along with psychiatric
counseling.) Songwriter/singer Carly Simon notwithstanding, you must have time
for the pain for overcoming the loss of the old or for birthing the new.
For pure pain and suffering turns that destructive yet catalytic spark into a
life-enhancing flame. (By the way, did you know that the original meaning
of "passion" is directly related to suffering, as in the Passion Play
of Christ or, more generically, the passion of a martyr? Of course, with a
Jewish mother, I knew this long ago.)
Revitalized by red hot pain, smoldering emotions and images once muted by the
dull gray ash of memory now regain shape crackling sound and flickering
movement in daydreams and nightmares. Lets call it the return of mind-
and heart-thawing light and heat in the cold cavernous psychic darkness.
Yet, this glowing flame can as easily burn you as guide or warm you.
Profoundly acute or prolonged pain shatters or melts our defenses; a parents
death also rekindles the adult childs bygone traces of solitude and
helplessness at the earlier loss of "Grandma," the family
pillar. (In times of dramatic change, employees may recall wistfully
"the good old days.") The hot, salty tears and anguished sobs of
memory cultivate passion and possibility. Clearly, the above images of
fire and water reflect two vital elements for sustaining human life.
Another critical component is allowing courage to win out over shame.
Remember, theres a profound difference between feeling sorry for your self
and feeling your sorrow. When you are feeling sorry for your self you tend
to blame others. When you are feeling your sorrow you are having the
courage to face your true pain. And in times of loss we all need time to
embrace our sorrows.
Finally, a well-deserved inspiring close:
For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!
3. Let go and take an "incubation vacation" to hatch a new
perspective." Another gift of dramatic pain is how it compels us
to stop what we are doing. Whether from a sense of helplessness,
exhaustion or spent rage you must let go of the irreplaceable partner, the
absolute or cherished belief or the financial or egotistical symbol of security
and pride. Despite all efforts, the present words on the page or images on
the canvas wont dance; the employees refuse to accept "the obvious"
technological change is here to stay. Throwing a temper tantrum,
openly or silently, rarely is sufficient. Expressing anger passionately
and purposefully enables us to move beyond blind rage. (Initially, though,
some rage may be necessary to undo the paralysis; just as experiencing sadness
is often needed to temper the rage.) Focused anger says, "This is who I am;
this is what I need. I dont like this immediate reality, but how do I
make the best of it." This focused aggression enables you to cut the
rope tied to false hopes and illusions allowing you to envision and explore and,
thereby, shape an unexpectedly pregnant future.
Anguish and anger are necessary sources of energy for breaking out of your
present box (that first destructive step). However, breaking out of the
box is not the same as thinking out of the box. For this you need to hit
the wall, let go and mentally meander. When feeling stuck, take a walk in
the woods or meditate in your garden, listen to Mozart or take a bubble
bath. Retreating is not giving up; quietly accepting anxiety and
frustration while on an incubation vacation allows your subconscious mind to
percolate past images and future symbols. This enriched database allows
for more complex shuffling and comparing along with the crystallizing or
distilling of unexpected and meaningful combinations. In fact, it is in
the eerily quiet mindless eye of the psychic storm, for the moment buffeted from
pressures of being torn between taking direct action and frustrating self-doubt,
that you often sight the first light in the dark clouds. And when your
psychic rumblings finally intersect with the dawning possibilities, when
emotional highs and lows are not seen only as signs of mental instability but as
an intrinsic part of the regenerative ebb and flow, then you are ready for
4. Embracing the "Aha!" moment. There was a
frustrating back and forth period as well as reflective down time before the
concept of an open air "forms funeral" lit up the organizational
horizon. The elegant simplicity of this idea was that it allowed for an
organized and safe expression of anger. This serious-humorous communal
offering recognized the profound connection between the comic and the tragic. As
pioneering film genius, Charlie Chaplin, observed: "The
paradoxical thing about making comedy is that its precisely the tragic which
arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of
natural forces and in order not to go crazy." And when such
expression enables others to affirm their importance and to poke fun with a
perceived antagonist for example, by replacing ridicule with a touch of the
ridiculous conflicts now can be resolved and wounds can begin to heal.
The boundary lines between victor and victim fade. Such a humanizing and
integrative process is ultimately cohesive, not divisive.
This "aha" or "haha," in line with Chaplins observations,
allows one to confront a sense of hopelessness: the inability to contemplate a
meaningful, life-sustaining future. Whether its noted Psychoanalyst,
Viktor Frankl, suddenly imagining himself in a warm lecture hall bearing
personal witness to the horrors of the concentration camps or, using a
qualitatively different example, an organization finally being able to conceive
and implement true collaboration between management and employees, this flashing
epiphany forever changes our world view. Perhaps my "aha humor"
inspiration made tangible a connection between abstraction (grief) and action
(forms funeral). Suddenly, there was both a new horizon and a transitional
As the Nobel prize-winning French Algerian writer, Albert Camus observed: "Once
we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one (or loved
procedure or system) obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky
washed by rain."
5. Crystallizing a new paradigm and new identity. Now is the time
of the poet warrior. The person who does not just walk the talk"
but one who will "fight for the light." The illuminating moment
by nature is evanescent. One must sustain courage and efforts for the
final stage of transformation and consolidation. Some will be skeptical;
you will need to take risks, for example, finally submitting your poetry or
short stories to a magazine or forming an ongoing consultation, if not
decision-making, matrix group comprised of management and employees. The reins
of control must be loosened; power must be shared.
But perhaps the biggest risk is fully embracing the change in your
identity: no longer being a couple; no longer running a hierarchical
department; having to accept the role of writer with both hard-earned,
pride-building rewards and its role responsibilities to keep going back into
the trenches for daily combat with ideas and images, sounds and rhythms.
And if determined to be reborn, if committed to expressing your genuine
individuality and essence, then the always demanding yet ultimately fulfilling
grief to creativity path less taken is yours forever more.
At this point, these strategic steps, "The "Six Fs for
Embracing Loss and Channeling Change" may well seem axiomatic:
1. Shaking or breaking up life's puzzle; letting go of a familiar past,
2. Confronting and channeling the anxiety of an unpredictable future,
3. Grappling with a loss of identity and integrity, with a loss of
self-esteem and pride...with a loss of face,
4. Exploring and generating new resources -- environmental, informational and
psychological -- for evolving a new focus,
5. Seeking and being open to feedback, both challenging and affirming,
such as a variety of TLC -- "tough loving care" as well as
"tender loving criticism" -- throughout the grief and rejuvenation
6. Trusting in higher power faith, from a belief in a transcendental
power to the synergy and confidence instilled by participating in a vital team
process, support group or counseling/coaching relationship.
And a final encouraging passage:
Remember, errors of judgment or design rarely consigns one to incompetence;
they more likely reveal inexperience or immaturity, perhaps even boldness.
Our so-called failures can be channeled as guiding streams (sometimes raging
rivers) of opportunity and experience that ultimately enrich widen and
deepen the risk-taking passage. If we can just immerse ourselves in
these unpredictable yet, ultimately, regenerative waters.
Surely words to gain a "whole corner of the possible" and also to