Creative Resistance And Dragon Slaying

I’m not a big fan of books that are self-help or inspirational or that promote wishful thinking about reality.  Most of the “wonder that is you” genre is at best a derivative easy-listening version of more disciplined and profound traditions.  At worst its delusional nonsense.

So I was surprised to see a book that seemed strangely self-helpish from author Steven Pressfield.  Pressfield is the author of Gates of Fire, a piece of historical fiction that recounts the oft told tale of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae.  If you aren’t familiar with the book it is an anthem to a certain ideal (Spartan) of virtue.  The book makes the most hardened and badass of grown men pretend they have something in their eye while they get all choked up.  I did.  By all accounts he’s an interesting man who, after a period in the Marine Corps  “worked as an advertising copywriter, schoolteacher, tractor-trailer driver, bartender, oilfield roustabout, attendant in a mental hospital, fruit-picker in Washington state, and screenwriter.  His struggles to make a living as an author, including the period when he was homeless and living out of the back of his car, are detailed in his book The War of Art ”  (So sayeth Wikipedia).  As a fellow former worker of random crappy jobs I have to feel a certain kinship.

So I was curious to see what Mr. Pressfield was doing writing a book about finding inspiration and overcoming internal resistant.  “Do The Work” only cost a few bucks for Kindle so why not?  I liked it even when I didn’t see eye to eye on everything.  But the most significant passage to me was this:

When you and I set out to create anything—art, commerce, science, love—or to advance in the direction of a higher, nobler version of ourselves, we uncork from the universe, ineluctably, an equal and opposite reaction. That reaction is Resistance. Resistance is an active, intelligent, protean, malign force—tireless, relentless, and inextinguishable—whose sole object is to stop us from becoming our best selves and from achieving our higher goals. The universe is not indifferent. It is actively hostile.  Every principle espoused so far in this volume is predicated upon that truth.

The aim of every axiom set forth thus far is to outwit, outflank, outmaneuver Resistance. We can never eliminate Resistance. It will never go away. But we can outsmart it, and we can enlist allies that are as powerful as it is. One thing we can never, never permit ourselves to do is to take Resistance lightly, to underestimate it or to fail to take it into account. We must respect Resistance, like Sigourney Weaver respected the Alien, or St. George respected the dragon.

Pressfield, Steven (2011-04-20). Do the Work (p. 33-34). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.

It may seem from the above passage that Pressfield is telling us the universe is nasty, brutish and has it in for you.  If you read the rest of his short book, more a long essay really, it is clear that isn’t what he’s saying.  But he IS making the point that when you are your own worst enemy, which most of us are at some point, the internal demons will combine with a fluid and uncertain environment to completely mess you up.  Figuring out how to deal with that is a personal responsibility and requires focused effort.

Where I think he does go wrong is his statement that the universe is not indifferent but is hostile.  He refers to each of us and our “dragon”.   It is true that each of us carries our internal adversary (and allies).   But neither we nor our internal adversary are the universe.  We are in it.  Nature doesn’t really care who prevails.  It accepts all outcomes and continues on.  Things come, things go in natural progression.  The outcome only matters to us.  To the extent that we can be in harmony with that universal nature (Tao, Logos) and ride its currents we’ll likely find it easier to keep resistance, disharmony, self-sabotage at bay.  I think the universe is indifferent but that indifference is not a negative.  It is not neglect.  It’s allowing things to go their own way.

The Stoics taught that we live in a universe that works.  It’s the best possible universe simply because, well, it exists.  Why would nature order itself to its own detriment?  Since we are part of the grand schema it makes no sense that anything truly evil can happen to us.  Painful?  Disappointing? Infuriating?  Even fatal?  Sure.  These things re inevitable.  But truly bad?  Not if we retain our awareness, our reason, our character, our purpose.  Which I think brings us full circle to Pressfield’s point.  There is really nothing to lose if you just give yourself over to doing your work, get messy, persevere (the Chinese got this right with the original meaning of Gung Fu).

To carry Pressfield’s Alien analogy further, the creature isn’t going away.  So you may as well just get mean and blow it out of the airlock.  Not bad advice for a self-help book.

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