Creating and Fear

In the creative process, fear is inescapable. We meet its various shades upon entering unfamiliar territory. At its best, fear will act as a friend, jumpstarting dreams to create beneficial reality. But it has other manifestations too. It can stop us in our tracks. Or, when out of control, it can distort reality in harmful ways. Last fall, election season prompted me to sit with Jane Mayer’s book “The Dark Side.” The narrative winds a fact-filled path through the bowels of the George W. Bush administration’s war on terror since the tragedy of September 11th, 2001. It may seem odd to use election season to illustrate the central role that fear plays in the creative process. But then again, everything is connected. So I’m going to give it a try. Defense against terror and political agendas were not the only motivators in the subversion of our constitution after the shattering events of 9-11. Fear played a central role. The American people, including our leaders in the White House, were afraid–understandably so. However, as evidence shows, the criminality of 9-11 had no links in reality to justify creating a war with Iraq. In fact, the mission to destroy the real Al Qaeda perpetrators in Afghanistan was squandered. The Iraq War was born of previous agendas, ignorance and fear.

In a posture of intense reaction, Bush administration lawyers wrote new U.S. laws in violation of the First Amendment and Geneva Conventions, blatantly attacking our democracy and founding principles. Vice President Cheney at the helm, they charted a course through which the executive branch of our government could sail beyond all checks and balances—to maneuver with no restraint, outside the law. We witnessed the unjust and chaotic war in Iraq that followed, along with torture and repression. We are still recovering from enormous loss of respect for America abroad.

As history bears out, creative action driven by fear-driven reasoning has created the worst and bloodiest miscarriages of justice known to humankind. Committed not by tyrants alone, but by otherwise honorable people, insidiously bound to a tragic illusion–that the ends justify the means. Rigid ideological thinking is intoxicated blindness. At best, the beholder is tragically unaware that his actions have come to mirror what he strives to defeat. At worst, the powerful consciously manipulate the fear of their populations to monopolize power. Perhaps what happened in the Bush administration is a combination of both. “The Dark Side” is a riveting journey through the abuse of power. It’s an astute, expert witness to the “slippery slope” that our American (and world) history makes clear, when we look.

One night, with chills up the spine and hairs on end, I bolted from my reading chair. I could take no more, so I tripped the TV switch to flee. Opening credits for “The Life of John Adams” documentary were rolling. Ironic escape.

The great legacy of John Adams, second president of the United States, includes a dark chapter of his Federalist Party rule. Fearing the rising influence of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, he signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The acts severely undermined civil liberties: provided unlimited powers of deportation, and criminalized those who publicly criticized the federal government. In contravention of the First Amendment, many newspaper editors and others (including a congressman) were imprisoned for several years and fined thousands of dollars. Federalists defended the acts as intended to protect the United States from alien citizens of enemy powers (Britain and France) and to stop rebellious attacks from weakening the government.

But historians claim (as did many citizens at the time) that the acts were unconstitutional, and designed to repress criticism of the Adam’s administration. The documentary proceeded to note further mishaps of intervening years–Roosevelt’s internment in the 1940s of Japanese Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor; McCarthyism in reaction to Communism in the 1950s; and Nixon’s Watergate of the 1970s. Escape would not oblige. Instead, I found myself headlong into to the dark side of creating–a theme we experience along broad global lines, and down the seams of our daily lives.

How can we keep fear from steering our creative process down hazardous slopes? This question could likely be answered in many competent ways, and meaningfully. But one key phrase keeps jumping to mind: action vs. reaction.

In knee-jerk reaction, fear has taken the lead. Worse, the anatomy of our fear eludes us, so true understanding of our position as it relates to the situation is lacking. Accordingly, reactive fear and opposition will tend to build. In reaction, fate might smile to create a positive outcome, but we increase the odds that it won’t.

In level-headed action, on the other hand, we explore the anatomy of our fear and discover our true position as it relates to the situation. We reflect enough to ease the fear into the back seat. Fueled by understanding, our action will tend to reduce fear and opposition. In action, fate may operate to create disappointment, but we increase the odds that it won’t. With time, patience and genuine understanding, our actions will produce positive results.

It’s unsettling to visit creative abuses of American power. But to recognize that our founders crafted a cauldron for holding these sad reflections is deeply moving. In writing our constitution, the framers incorporated wisdom gained from the flames of their European history. They knew all too well the scorched earth left in the wake of tyrants. Their masterpiece endures, providing us with warnings to check our intentions and, most importantly, the freedom to correct ourselves. In the coming weeks and years, we will be grappling not only with the question of fear as related to our personal creative lives, but also as related to our country as a whole.

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*Essay by Barbara Bowen of GatewaysCoaching.com - the definitive source for artists and creative careers in transition. Contact Barbara to empower your creative process and for help with your career goals. She would love to hear from you.*