The Duality of the Storm

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I have had some great feedback from a few people who wonder how my more positive posts can actually qualify as “writing from the shadow.” One way or another, the general gist of the conversation goes something like this: “Life is not all positive. In fact, for myself and others it is the exact opposite. ‘Life sucks and then you die,’ and there is nothing you can do about that.” This is how they see the “shadow” metaphor playing out.

I completely understand where they are coming from. But here’s another way of looking at this:

In a philosophy class I took a few years ago, entitled “Optimimism and Pessimism: A Philosophical Inquiry,” this topic was tackled in studying what a historical span of various philosophers and thinkers had to say on this dichotomy. At the beginning of the class, we were asked to identify which camp we fell into (or whether we were a mixture of the two).  What I found the most interesting was how several people identified themselves as optimists precisely because they were natural pessimists. As one student said, who was prone to depression: “If I didn’t choose to be optimistic, I would put a gun to my head.” For him, optimism was a choice he made to deal with the difficulties in his life, but it was not based on “hiding his head in the sand”  pretending that these difficulties didn’t exist.

One of the thinkers we studied during the class was Dr. Viktor Frankl, who built his life’s work around a similar idea.  Dr. Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist living in Vienna at the time of World War II.  Dr. Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz and endured incredible suffering, including the deaths of his wife, his parents, and most of his family. Based on these experiences, Dr. Frankl called himself a “tragic optimist,” – one who is well aware of the darkness of life but who has chosen to transcend it by finding meaning and purpose in it.  (To learn more about Dr. Frankl, see my earlier blog post about him from last spring).

While I have thankfully not suffered anywhere near what Dr. Frankl has, I have experienced other kinds of hardships, including a difficult childhood that left its mark on my psyche, and almost losing one of my children from a childhood illness that left her with a complex seizure disorder and lifelong developmental disabilities.  Yet I have also seen beauty and meaning come from these experiences, and that is what this blog is about: a reflection of both aspects of life—the difficult and the transcendent.  To find meaning in hardship is not easy. However I am compelled to try, most often from and with the strength of love, in all its many forms.  I am also compelled to do it because my soul and spirit fought to transcend it, often inexplicably, in spite of my own emotions and inclination to despair. Even within my own nature, I find this duality wage its war.

The storm picture used to illustrate the meaning of this blog (pictured above and to the right) also symbolize the dual aspects of life:  the churning waves crashing against the bench on one side, while giving way to the calm waters on the other side. And likewise, the black storm clouds on the left begin to break on the right, revealing the sunlight as the storm is abating.

This is what I write about in this blog. I write not only to find the sun in the storm, but the gifts hidden within it – within me – within us all, as we are faced with making sense of our lives and the responses we need to make in facing its very real challenges. I also do it to lift myself from the logical despair that can come from experiencing tragedy or other difficulties that make no sense at all at the time (and perhaps never will).  I also do it in case it might help someone else, just as other people have helped me when writing of their own suffering.

I truly understand where those who gave their feedback are coming from. I actually have felt the way they do at times. Yet my , but my soul and art continually compel me to find meaning in those experiences and perhaps transcend them.  It is that which fuels my life, art, and purpose.  And most of all, it is how I find healing and meaning in it.

Please share your thoughts on this subject: I would love to hear from you.

Photo of storm clouds and waves image used above and in the Blog header is the work of photographer Jason Swain, and is used by permission. To see more of Jason’s excellent work, click on the link below: http://www.jasonswain.co.uk/.

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary

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“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”      ~ C.S. Lewis

 I love this quote, but I think it is a love I gained in retrospect rather than in the moment of hardship.  There have been many in my life, and some prolonged.  But when I look back, I see all the extraordinary moments that were being built, though I didn’t see it at the time.  Despite how many times I have seen miracles happen, I still often fail to remember those possibilities when I am in the thick of pain or struggle.  Just when I think I am “going down for the count,” something happens to redeem the struggle. It doesn’t take it away completely, of course: What is done is done, or what is lost is lost.  But there is often some kind of hidden purpose–a grit, a grace, a gift that comes in spite of it, and maybe even because of it. But it does come . . . eventually.

Gandhi_thinking_mood_1931Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.”  ~ Mahatma Ghandi

I also love the above quote.  And since we all know what Ghandi ultimately experienced, his words above we know to be true.  It was not wishful thinking, nor did he put blinders on to the dark side of life. He was speaking about something far more substantial than that – yet so practical and so . . . possible  . . . even for ordinary people like me or you, or most of us.  He knew the dark side of life fully, and fought it with enormous courage — and with nothing more than his willingness to try.  From these humble and ordinary beginnings, he did extraordinary things.

I don’t have to rise to the magnitude of what Ghandi did to experience his truth in my life – none of us do; that is what makes this all so extraordinary.  I matter — and everything I have struggled with in my life matters.  It all matters because we matter.  Each moment we experience has meaning and purpose.  It just takes time to find it sometimes.  Hardships often hold the substance of destiny. We are the alchemist of those possibilities, with grace and love to light the way.

The Most Important Critic is You: Thoughts on the Nature of Criticism

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“I have spent a good many years since―too many, I think―being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

“[A] writer’s most powerful weapon, his true strength, was his intuition, and regardless of whether he had any talent, if the critics combined to discredit an author’s nose for things, he would be reduced to a fearful creature who took a mistakenly guarded, absurdly cautious approach to his work, which would end up stifling his latent genius.”

Félix J. Palma, The Map of Time

“Still the voices of your critics. Listen intently to your own voice, to the person who knows you best. Then answer these questions: Do you think you should move ahead? How will you feel if you quit pursuing this thing you want to do? And what does your best self advise? What you hear may change your life.”

Steve Goodier


I used Goya’s painting of “Saturn devouring his sons” to symbolize the adverse effects of toxic criticism on the creative process.  In an earlier post on this subject, I used the image of a Dementor from the Harry Potter books, but the message is similar: certain kinds of criticism devour rather than inform or inspire.  While some criticism is necessary and valuable, even crucial to our development as writers, how does one differentiate between helpful and toxic criticism?

While the following provides a few general thoughts, I know there are more.  Please share some of your own in the comments below. I would love to hear what you all think on this subject.  I have been surprised at how many of us struggle with this area. There is also the truth that sometimes we can be our own worst critic, too.

  • Constructive criticism gives specific, practical advice about how to improve your writing, while honoring the creative process itself and the ideas you are trying to convey (even when the critic disagrees with your ideas).  There is a sincere, or at least objective desire to help you become a better writer, while providing possible alternative viewpoints.
  • Non-constructive criticism on the other hand, often comes in the form of a general, non-specific, or blanket rejection of your writing and your ideas.  This form of criticism confuses rejection of your ideas with your writing style or technique. There is no intent to help you improve as a writer, but rather to belittle or discourage.

I don’t mean to imply that tough criticism always has such a negative intent, of course.  If I want to improve, I have to be willing to receive feedback and constructive criticism. However, the main thing to discern is, “Why is this person saying this to me?  What is their intent?  Is there anything I can take from these comments that serves me?”  While I always prefer constructive criticism over the negative kind, there is usually something I can learn from any type of criticism.

For one thing, it has taught me to detach, toughen up, and use criticism more effectively.  I learned to ignore it in some cases, and in other instances to stop being so defensive and at least hear what my critics had to say.  I even learned to ask them questions and find out why they felt the way that they did. Conversely, I also learned to balance that openness with the importance of being true to myself first. I learned that while I can always improve my technical skills or how I communicate my ideas, I won’t change the bedrock of what I believe or write just to please other people.  As Raymond Carver once said about what his favorite professor taught him (who also was a tough but caring critic):  “If the words and sentiments [of a writer] are dishonest, the author is faking it, writing about things he or she does not care about or believe in, and the result is that nobody else will ever care anything about it either.”  This is what the best of my writing teachers and critics taught me as well.

Graphic though the above Goya painting may be, I think it is a good illustration of what happens to our self-confidence and to the creative process when we allow negative criticism to affect us adversely.  That is when criticism turns toxic.  As Eleanor Roosevelt once advised:  “No one can make you inferior without your consent.”   As writers and artists, we must always refuse to give our consent. Instead, to choose to believe in who we are and what we are moved to voice or create.  If we don’t, no one else will.  And, at the end of the day, isn’t our opinion about who we are and what we want to say the most important one anyway?

Question:  How many critics do we remember?  Mostly likely none.  How many great and innovative thinkers, writers, and artists do we remember?  And the latter always had more than their fair share of critics.  We are the richer that those great minds being criticized weren’t afraid to shake things up and neither should we.