The Courage to Create
When Rollo May was a boy, his mother often left him alone with his schizophrenic sister. He learned early to empathize with those who view reality differently, and he learned early how to fend for himself. He went on to pursue studies in English, psychotherapy, and even ministry.
In the post-World War II 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, he contributed most notably to helping us honor life’s mystery and meaning and to be courageous and creative in a troubled world.
As we talk in this disruptive early 21st-century about what it means to to be creative and to be brave, Rollo May merits a place in the conversation. He has much to say about creativity and death, about our avarice for money over meaning, and about a joy deeper than ephemeral happiness.
In this Thinking Allowed Interview, his comments speak directly to our times:
[O]ur knowledge of our death is what gives us a normal anxiety that says to us, ‘Make the most of these years you are alive.’
And on our impulse to move away from anxiety:
We try to avoid anxiety by getting rich, by making a hundred thousand dollars when we’re twenty-one years of age, by becoming millionaires. Now none of those things lead to the joy, the creativity that I’m talking about. One can own the world and still be without the inner sense of pleasure, of joy, of courage, of creation.
And this about joy:
I’m not against anybody feeling good or having happy hours, but joy is something different from that. Joy is the zest that you get out of using your talents, your understanding, the totality of your being, for great aims. Musicians… always showed considerable anxiety, because they were in the process of loving beauty, of feeling joy when they heard a beautiful combination of notes. That’s the kind of feeling that goes with creativity. That’s why I say ‘the courage to create.’ Creation does not come out of simply what you’re born with. That must be united with your courage, both of which cause anxiety but also great joy.”
I’ve been re-reading his seminal book The Courage to Create. A mentor gave me a copy when I was 22 and in grad school. The book charged my heart and helped change how I lived my life.
“[C]reative courage…is the discovering of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which a new society can be built.”
“The creative process must be explored not as the product of sickness, but as representing the highest degree of emotional health, as the expression of the normal people in the act of actualizing themselves. Creativity must be seen in the work of the scientist as well as in that of the artist, in the thinker as well as in the aesthetician; and one must not rule out the extent to which it is present in captains of modern technology as well as in a mother’s normal relationship with her child.”
And that’s what I’m wondering today. And that’s what I’m calling on all of us to keep doing and to keep encouraging each other to do.
What new way of doing things, viewing things, making things, or being are you creating or yearning to create? What’s giving you the courage to create?