The Agony and the Ecstacy

The 1965 film was a masterpiece, detailing of the life of Michelangelo and his relationship with his patron Pope Julius II. It was my first introduction to Michelangelo and began my sincere appreciation to this day.

The title has always intrigued me. It describes a vast amount of emotional range, almost the perfect picture of bipolar. It’s no accident that an artist can feel this ecstasy so deeply, and sometimes so quickly. After hours of working in stone, ecstatically carving just the right line, then a miss hit with chisel, and a chunk flies off into the corner. The agony comes even quicker. I have experienced this first hand. Well, maybe not the ecstasy, but certainly the agony.

This range of emotion is not for the faint hearted, and for some it is crippling. What has been intriguing me lately is the more common and less dramatic range of comfort and discomfort. It is the lesser cousin of agony and ecstasy.

I’m comfortably walking to the store. I feel a chill because my jacket is unzipped, this makes me discomfortable. I zip the jacket and it is resolved, I am again comfortable. I sit in my recliner expecting the comfort of raising my feet, only to find that my wallet is poking my right butt cheek. I adjust it and I’m back to being comfortable.

This is generally the case, comfort can come quite easily. All one must do is remove the source of discomfort. I’m not sure that ecstasy is created by removing agony.

I think perhaps the potential ease of being comfortable is the trap that causes so many people to chase comfort with such vigor. Ecstasy is so far away, too much effort, but comfort? Comfort is just a simple adjustment. Why not be comfortable 100% of the time?

That is a reasonable question! And take a look at the efforts of most folk to be more comfortable. The opioid crisis doesn’t come from the desire to remove pain. It comes from the desire to attain comfort. Alcohol is perhaps the first historical example of seeking comfort. Even Noah succumbed to the desire. Life was harsh, why not grow a few grapes and remove the discomfort with the fermented juice?

I suppose the answer to the basic question is… Would Noah have built the ark if he had fermented the grapes first? Metaphorically, if he didn’t build the Ark, there would be no people. That’s a fairly large consequence to the desire for comfort.

I have taught art for many years and have experienced the creative process of thousands of students. Mostly it is hard work and persistence. Often it is breathtaking. Some of the most breathtaking have been from students describing their concepts beforehand. Sometimes this conversation is just “smoke talk”, from students who regular smoke a little creative encouragement. Unfortunately the art concept never finds reality, except as smoke.

The projects that get done are the result of dedication, planning, and painful practice. Musicians are used to this practice, visual artists also need training to master their tools, so we call them “studies”. Hehe, I guess writers call them blogs.

The point is that creative folks understand that discomfort is part of the process of bringing art to life. So many other examples exist, that I’m a little confused why discomfort is so avoided. Maybe it is an issue that our lives aren’t bouncing between comfort and discomfort. Maybe we spend far too much time in the region between, “the Great Dull Void”, where nothing is done, and nothing is felt.

It’s not that we are comfortable there, we are just not uncomfortable enough to move. The Great Dull Void keeps us captive so that even in our activity we move as automatons. We derive no comfort from work, or social interaction, but it’s not awful either. It’s almost like we are in line, waiting for life to happen.

One of the quotes on discomfort I like particularly well. “Discomfort is very much a part of my master plan.”

Two things that I bring from my life lessons…

1. It may be fine to have milk from “contented cows”, but contentment (comfort) rarely creates art.

2. Often we enjoy the beauty of art, but we don’t see the discomfort behind the creation.

It suddenly struck me one year, that most of the photographs that I really admired were taken by photographers in very uncomfortable places. Not only was there the years of uncomfortable training for the skill, but now they were kayaking in icy Arctic waters to take the one special iceberg image, or hanging out of a plane at high altitude to shoot storm clouds.

It adds to my appreciation to see the possible discomfort behind the beauty.