Creating and Fear

September 11, 2008

We meet various shades of fear upon entering unfamiliar territory.  No less true in the creative process. At its best, fear will act as friend, jumpstarting dreams to create beneficial reality. But it has other manifestations, too.   It can distort reality in harmful ways. Or even stop us in our tracks. 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.

With Election Day in mind, I revisited Jane Mayer’s book “The Dark Side.”   The narrative charts a fact-filled path through the bowels of the George W. Bush administration’s war on terror since the tragedy of September 11th, 2001.

A sound defense against terror was not the only motivator in the violation of civil liberties after the shattering events of 9-11. Fear played a central role. The American people were afraid, as were our leaders in the White House, and understandably so. As evidence shows, however, the criminality of 9-11 had no links in reality to justify war with Iraq. In fact, the mission to defeat the true perpetrators, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, was squandered in favor of the Iraq war.

In a posture of frenzied reaction, Bush administration lawyers wrote new U.S. laws in violation of the First Amendment and Geneva Conventions, blatantly attacking our civil liberties and laws of war. Vice President Cheney at the helm, they followed a course through which the executive branch of our government could sail beyond all checks and balance to maneuver with no restraint, outside the law. In its wake, we have witnessed the unjust and chaotic war in Iraq, along with torture, repression and enormous loss of respect for America abroad.

History bears out that creative action born of fear-driven reasoning has created the worst and bloodiest miscarriages of justice known to humankind. Committed not only by tyrants, but, indeed, by otherwise honorable people, insidiously bound to a tragic illusion–that the ends justify the means. At best, rigid ideological thinking blinds them to become, themselves, a mirror image of what they strive to defeat. At worst, the powerful use the fear of their populations cynically 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 critical moments in our American history make 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 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 limited civil liberties—providing unlimited powers of deportation, and criminalizing anyone 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–as did many citizens at the time–claim the acts were unconstitutional, and designed to repress criticism of the Adam’s administration. The documentary went on to note other 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–to name a few.

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 along 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 correctly. But one key phrase keeps jumping to mind: action vs. reaction. In reaction, fear has taken the lead before we understand the anatomy of our fear, so we lack true understanding of our position as it relates to the situation. Without that understanding, reactive fear and opposition build. Fate might smile to create a positive outcome, but in reaction, we increase the odds that it won’t.

When in action, on the other hand, we have reflected enough to coax fear into the back seat. We took time to explore its anatomy, and our true position as it relates to the situation. Fueled by understanding, action reduces fear and opposition. Fate may operate to create disappointment, but in action we increase the odds that it won’t. With time, patience, genuine understanding and flexible choices our actions will produce positive results.

It’s unsettling to visit creative abuses of American power. But to recognize that our founders anticipated these sad reflections is deeply moving.   The framers of our Constitution incorporated wisdom they’d 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 freedom to check our intentions and, most importantly, the freedom to change course. In the coming weeks and years, my hope is that we will all grapple with this question of fear as it relates to our personal creative lives, and in the creative life of our country as a whole.

Do you need content? You may use these essays at your website, or in your newsletter. The only requirement is inclusion of the following plus active links:

*Essay by Barbara Bowen of - 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.*