The Unlived Life

Steven Pressfield

“You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the school of Architecture. Ever seen one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War 2 than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”

From “The Unlived Life,” section of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.

Pressfield, the author of the Legend of Bagger Vance and a historical novel on the battle of Thermapolyae is making the extreme point that what emerges from the depths of ourselves that we do not live out creatively, will ultimately turn instead to destruction. Steven Forrest posted a link to a news page on Facebook today that asserts “nearly forty per cent of Europeans suffer mental illness.” This is of course a masterly example of the caution (nearly) and bold co-existing and the marvellous use to which statistics can be put as this list includes those suffering from dementia and alcoholics just as much as it does people being medicated for depression (as a salient commentator on the posting suggested we may indeed pathologize the normal issues and stresses of life to a nonsensical level). 

However Steven posts for a reason, similar reasons perhaps that see Pressfield write in his deliberately belligerent style, “Attention Deficit Disorder, Seasonal Affect Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder. These aren’t diseases, they’re marketing ploys. Doctors didn’t discover them, copywriters did. Marketing departments did. Drug companies did.”

Now I in no way wish to offend anyone suffering from any of the above syndromes, or to suggest that there are no psychological or mental issues that can cause suffering to the individual. As a psychotherapist in private practice this would be somewhat absurd. In fact even Pressfield on the warpath continues; “Depression and anxiety may be real. But they can also be Resistance.” This issue, this affliction ‘Resistance’ is what Pressfield aims his will against in his war of Art (the reversal of the famous Samurai text The Art of War), this ‘Resistance’ may indeed play a critical role in the very real experience that millions of people in the West undergo: they struggle to cope with their lives and to ‘manage’ their feelings so they go to their G.P. (General Practitioner) with their problem. This individual who may have no psychiatric experience whatsoever, who may or may not be a kind, compassionate sensible individual, is we can certainly assume a very busy person, with a list longer than their arm of people to see that day. Nine times out of ten they are prescribed drugs, at least their doctor can do something for them, at least the individual can walk away feeling like they have something in their hands that might help them…

Indeed it is this sense that someone has paid attention to them and that the physical pills will help them that forms the ‘placebo’ effect that Professor of Psychology Irvin Kirsch in his though provoking study The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Anti-Depressant Myth suggests studies really reveal as the predominant impact of the anti-depressants (otherwise there is no reason to explain why substances as different chemically as say a Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor and a Tricyclic anti-depressant could both show such similar, and fairly modest, statistics of improving their recipients well-being). I am not against the responsible use of medication personally, as I have some clients who report that they are helped by medication, especially in cases where they may have been severe personality disorder or suicidal ideation present. Especially with anti-psychotic medications (though the side effects can be appalling and need to be weighed heavily against any benefits). I am however deeply suspicious of the materialism of a culture that hands out anti-depressants to children at infant school (literally, like candy), a culture that cannot imagine any other response than a doctor saying take these for a couple of months, the feelings you had since your mother died will surely pass away.

Surely they will, and maybe alongside them could go this myth that there is an ‘endogenous’ depression, just a lottery where some people are just born unlucky. Perhaps we could let the myth go too that says from our amazing, but still primitive and rudimentary understanding of genetics and the human genome that we can explain everything with Bio-chemistry and Neuro-science. This is a near tragic hubris that Greek culture would have understood all too well; the brilliant hero (in this case science) falls in love with the image of their power and achievements (genuine and substantial) and then they begin to fall into darkness. For whatever the real statistic, far too many Europeans, far too many people in the West, who have relative ease and comfort in their lives, suffer from depression of the mind, loss of spirit. In that context Pressfield’s analysis of the consequences of ‘Resistance’ become all the more interesting,

“A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless…There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves. Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing. Beyond that, Resistance becomes clinical.”

The War of Art

Resistance for Pressfield arises when we do not do our Art. Be that writing, be that setting up our own business, going on a diet or fitness regime, setting up a charitable event or choosing to meditate. Anything we value brings up the resistance, and the greater the value the more the subconscious fear generates, you guessed it ‘Resistance’. Pressfield jokes in one section, that day when you are working in Calcutta for the Mother Teresa Foundation and you get the idea that returning to the states to begin a career in telemarketing is a good idea, you know that Resistance is buying that ticket for you.

In following Pressfield’s wonderfully wise and bold thesis and applying it to this culture of ours, with such in many ways graceful lives and yet so much mental suffering and you would have to say that maybe we are not prepared for the freedom we have created for ourselves. Maybe we cannot handle our resistance to what is valuable in life, in the world and in ourselves. This spectre of our own subconscious fear of our power (and glory) ‘Resistance’ sees so many kindly people walk in despair to their G.P.’s desperate for drugs. Legal pushing. That sees the drug companies who make billions from this trade become hardly the most motivated in searching for another solution. It’s all ‘Resistance’. Resistance to the truth, resistance to the real value of the human life, the human heart with all its glorious sadness and fierce love.

People undergo loss, they lose their jobs, lose the people they love and alongside life’s losses and crazy pace they begin to lose themselves, truly the greatest loss of all. In all this loss they do not know where to turn. They look to the church, the medical establishment, they look to astrologers and psychotherapists, if they can find the courage to look at all, and admit their lonely suffering. If we are one of the people that these folks turn to, even if only rarely (think of those beleaguered doctors) then we have to ask ourselves what we are going to do when we are approached…

For that is a real question. Real questions have a tendency to bring up that old favourite of Pressfield’s, ‘Resistance’.