Do you have the psychological kind?
How easy would you find it to stand up in front of a potentially hostile audience and express yourself honestly? Sometimes in life we are all confronted by the choice of whether we’re going to do that or whether we’re going to bottle it and keep stumm. This is the third and final blog looking at aspects of Will Gompertz’s inspirational book, Think like an artist. And right now I’m interested in what he has to say about psychological courage.
Humility or hiding?
‘You will never do anything in this world without courage’, said Aristotle. And yet nobody, as Gompertz says, wants to make a fool of themselves in public, risking humiliation. That’s why many people are protected by a healthy hardwired degree of self-doubt. We think twice before exposing ourselves. But this humility can also be ‘nothing more than a big sofa to hide behind’. Sometimes we just have to go for it and trust not only ourselves but also the reaction of others around us. There will almost certainly be criticism. Perhaps we can learn from some of it. But part of the criticism may be unwarranted and the criticism may even amount to a chorus. That’s where the courage to keep going comes in.
Gompertz tells the story of the extraordinary bravery of Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Basically he didn’t want to and initially didn’t dare to. He was a sculptor not a painter, the ceiling was vast, it was twenty metres above the floor and he felt he was being set up to fail by his enemies. So he ‘looked into the eyes of the one man in Rome you should not refuse’ (Pope Julius II) ‘and said no’. The great MIchelangelo was frightened – frightened of losing his reputation as the finest artist in the land, frightened of losing his livelihood, frightened of losing his considerable self-confidence and frightened of messing up the project.
Going for broke
But eventually he said yes. And then proceeded to make things even harder for himself. On top of the business of fresco painting a colossal space with wet paint and plaster dripping into his eyes, mouth and ears, he designed a painting ‘so complex and technically difficult that nobody could question his ambition even if they ridiculed the end result’. In other words he seems to have decided that if he was going to fail he would fail spectacularly.
‘For the next four years Michelangelo painted day and night, barely sleeping, hardly ever drinking, and by all accounts not bothering to wash much either. He spent this time standing on his wooden scaffold, his face flat to the ceiling, head bent back, arms held aloft. The physical discomfort and mental exhaustion would have done for most of us’. Finally it was completed. And as with visitors today, so with visitors then. The reaction was stunned silence. ‘Nothing like this had been produced before, or has been since. The sheer virtuosity of Michelangelo’s painting, together with his exemplary technique, complete understanding of perspective and vivid imagination, is dazzling and unmatched’. The critics were speechless.
Will Gompertz goes on to discuss society’s huge pressure on us all to conform. In the face of that, whether you’re an artist, an entrepreneur or a scientist, enormous courage is needed to do new things. Censorship exists in every country in the world, be it the brutal censorship of Chinese Communism or the subtler ‘insidiousness of politically correct dogma, bullying by single-issue groups [or] corporate spin’.
Group therapy and courage
But to the struggles of writers, directors, poets, composers and artists I would add one other example of courage. It’s an example I see in my work as a group psychotherapist. It’s the courage to find a voice to speak in a group. Speaking so that you are revealed. Speaking sometimes when it means going against the flow of what everyone else is saying. Speaking too when it means risking conflict. That takes bravery. It means weighing up fear against the prospect of growth in strength, identity, confidence and courage itself. Things which can then be taken out of the group room into everyday life where they can make a very big difference to how we fare and how much of our potential we achieve. That’s one reason why group therapy can be such a great tool for self-development.
I would agree with Coco Chanel, the legendary fashion designer, when she said, ‘The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.’
© Brian Shand 2020
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