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The Pain of Being Human

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 25, 2011

The Gnostics believed that exile was the psychological condition of the human being. It certainly feels that way to me.

Bosch

One panel of Hieronymus Bosch's "Haywain Triptych."

We’ve been talking about artists and addicts for the past couple of weeks. Not every artist is an addict, and certainly not every addict is an artist. But it seems to me that both share an acute, even excruciating sensitivity to the pain of being human—and both actively seek ways to overcome it, transcend it, or at least make it go away.

What is the pain of being human? To me, it’s the condition of being suspended between two worlds and being unable to fully enter into either. We can’t reach the upper realm (that belongs to the gods) but we can’t forget it either; we can’t escape intimations and half-memories of … what? Some prior sojourn, before birth perhaps, among the immortals or the stars.

Our lot instead is to dwell in the lower realm, the sphere of the temporal and the material—the timebound dimension of instincts and animal passions, of hate and desire, aspiration and fear. We’re called to the upper realm (and it is calling to us) but we’re having a pretty good time (sometimes) down here in the sphere of the senses. Bottom line: we’re marooned in the middle, stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again.

And that doesn’t even count the pain of knowing that we’re going to die. There’s another jumbo portion. Not so much fear of our mortality (because we all secretly believe that we’ll be the first person in history NOT to kick off) as frustration and anger at the unfairness of it all. If you’ll forgive me for quoting myself, here’s a passage from Killing Rommel. A poet and Oxford tutor, Zachary Stein, is making the distinction between Jewish despair and Irish despair:

“Jewish despair arises from want and can be cured by surfeit. Give a penniless Jew fifty quid and he perks right up. Irish despair is different. Nothing relieves Irish despair. The Irishman’s complaint lies not with his circumstances, which might be rendered brilliant by labour or luck, but with the injustice of existence itself. Death! How could a benevolent Deity gift us with life, only to set such a cruel term upon it? Irish despair knows no remedy. Money doesn’t help. Love fades; fame is fleeting. The only cures are booze and sentiment. That’s why the Irish are such noble drunks and glorious poets. No one sings like the Irish or mourns like them. Why? Because they’re angels imprisoned in vessels of flesh.”

The addict seeks to escape the pain of being human in two ways—by transcending it and by deadening it. Girls look prettier, jokes are funnier when we “get drunk and be somebody.” On LSD we can almost, if we’re lucky, glimpse the face of the Infinite. If that doesn’t work, we can always pass out. Both ways work. The pain goes away.

The artist takes a different tack. When I say “artist,” I mean as well the lover, the  holy man, the engineer, the mother, the warrior, the inventor, the singer, the sage and the voyager. (And remember, addict and artist can be one and the same and often are, moment to moment). If the upper realm, as Plato testifies, is the sphere of perfect love, truth, justice and beauty … then the artist seeks to call the magic of this world down and create, by dint of labor and luck, the closest-to-sublime simulacrums of those qualities as mortal measure can produce. It works, if she stays true to her muse. For the moment. For an hour or an evening.

But the condition of being human reappears with the dawn.

Resistance is the dragon that guards the gold. It’s the archangel, armed with a flaming sword, who defends the gates of Paradise.

Two ways to know if you’re taking the addict’s path or the artist’s. One, the artist’s way requires work. We have to sweat to find surcease of pain. And two, the artist’s imperative is to maintain self-sovereignty, not abdicate it. Her heart may surrender momentarily in order to hear heaven’s music, but her feet remain planted here on earth, where she will do the work to bring that song to human ears.

Posted in Do The Work Wednesdays, Writing Wednesdays

33 Responses to “The Pain of Being Human”

  1. May 25, 2011 at 8:09 am

    Very, very nice. This is true about any meaningful work that someone is trying to do — teacher, businessman, or poet.

  2. David Smith
    May 25, 2011 at 8:09 am

    It’s known as a “God Hole” and the beginning of its healing is to admit to the problem, clean house, do the work of daily re-establishing the relationship between psyche and pneuma (according to the methods that suit you) and be of use to others.

    By some definitions of “self-sovereignty” it is the sovereign “self” that is the source of the hole and a barrier to its healing, but not all. Your mileage may vary.

  3. Sonja
    May 25, 2011 at 8:23 am

    I loved this! Just what I needed to read this morning…and that Bosch pictures captures in an image what you have so eloquently written.

    Fantastic! And thank you.

  4. May 25, 2011 at 8:35 am

    Steven,

    You struck a chord in my Irish soul. I think of meditating as tapping a “God Space” where in the quiet I can feel the presence of the Divine.

    When flowing in creativity I find myself in that space as well.

  5. May 25, 2011 at 8:46 am

    What a great way to bring around your point Steven.

    You’ve gone and touched a chord that each of us must listen to, and by doing so you’ve at least acquired our attention. I wonder, though, whether there is a true way to determine which way (the artist’s or the addict’s) is the “right” one, if there is really any way to define such a thing.

    It all comes down to personal belief and philosophy, does it not?

  6. Mike Edwardson
    May 25, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Brilliant Steve, a universal truth but one which preciously few people really understand, despite running up aganst it in their own lives every day.

  7. Colin K. Morrison
    May 25, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    I was about to email a friend I worked with in Holland that was from Kildare, Ireland.
    We customarily exchange 1 song & 1 quote in each email. It’s becoming challengeing to get a new song & quote past each other.

    The Stein quote from Killing Rommel thus could not have reached me with better timing.

    Reminds me of a line from an Irish movie we repeated so frequently it became a 1-2 routine:
    One of us would start,
    “That’s the thing about life…”
    and the other finishes,
    “…It’ll break your heart”.

    His father requires you “perform” as entrance fee to his domicile.

    Sing a song, read a poem or short story, play an instrument, act out a scene. A fellow co-worker balked.

    She asked his father
    “What if I mess up? What if I fail?”

    He smiled and responded
    “If you fail it will make a great story. Succeed and it will make a better person.”

    This did not put her at ease. She asked
    “How do i know whether I succeed or fail?”

    He responded,
    “In the realm of creative expression, is there a difference? I think if you finished, you succeeded. Your mind can make other distinctions if it wishes. So what will you sing for us today?”

    She sweat and trembled through the beginning then suddenly, when the fear faded, out came a beautiful singing voice that roused loud applause.

    Our work team was an international bunch; a dozen people from 9 nations. A strong unifying element among us was a passion for music. So at a typical get-together we played instruments and sang songs.

    After her visit to Kildare, you always heard her voice.

    She found it in a 2 minute challenge.
    In 2 minutes she struggled with doubt, sweat through the work, tapped into the muse, and brought a song to human ears.

    It made a great story and by her own admission a better person for having done it.

    • May 25, 2011 at 5:39 pm

      What a great story, Colin! Sometimes these Comments boxes become little novels, and this was one of those times. Thanks.

  8. May 25, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    And then there is the inherited anxiety that we carry in our DNA
    We listen for the tiger and we hear his breathing and smell him.
    We huddle in the cave.
    We know where he is. We are ready for him
    But where is that other tiger? The one that might be there or there or there.
    Now that is modern life.

  9. May 26, 2011 at 6:40 am

    The last paragraph of this really struck a cord in me.

    Growing up, my writing (mostly lyric and prose, and yes, I’ve got a bit o’ the blarney in my bloodline) seemed to be fueled by personal despair and drugs, almost as if my muse took a holiday when things were going well in my life, but returned in grand style when the crap hit the fan.

    Almost 4 decades later, free from any addictions or compulsive behaviors, the only time I “lose myself” is when I am deep in the creative process itself, deeply inspired. It transports me to that realm I was seeking through substances or relationships. And for the most part, I – by an act of will alone – can go there.

    Thank you for the inspiration this morning.

  10. May 26, 2011 at 10:05 am

    SO beautifully expressed, this tug of war between here and up there or even down there in the mysterious lower world of mystery and magic. And it IS why I write, to express those magic glimpses of Divine that pass through the human moments of my awakeness,when I yearn to feed my hungry soul which stays as hungry as my human body on a daily basis with so much want and need and highs and lows.

    P.S. I finished my book this week after 4 years of “fooling around with it”,thanks to reading your book Do The Work. I wrote the word RESISTANCE on a piece of paper then drew a red circle around it and a line throught it. I pinned it up above my computer.
    What an incredible shift I am experiencing now.
    FYI, I follow Marie Forleo and had watched her Skpe interview with you the day you released the book and I downloaded Kindle.
    Thank you Steven~~~~

    • May 26, 2011 at 4:26 pm

      Big congrats to you, Colleen. You have whipped Irish despair–and that is no small thing. I salute you.

      • Jimmy McGuire
        May 30, 2011 at 8:45 am

        I rarely think about my Irishness as being key to the tragedy, loss, and gypsy soul that seem to shape my existence. It’s easy to claim it in regards to my alcoholism, drug addiction and need to make music, however. I’m feeling more proud of my ethnicity after reading this. I’m almost 6 years clean & sober, in my 50s and now invigorated by the War of Art (just read it yesterday). I look forward to reading more of your stuff. I’ll tell you the truth, I’m a little worried about praying to the muses. You know, the one God thing. However, after doing it as best I can right now, (and with asking Jesus’ permission) I noticed a difference in my day. I played and sang for about 6 hours yesterday, and wrote most of a pretty good song. I hope I can hang onto whatever you’ve helped open up. My creativity has been scattered, at best, over the years. And while I’ve written some good songs in a stoned blur I don’t remember them nor have any record of them. Please forgive my babbling here, but I’m excited about this new chapter, and frankly with the potential of starting a conversation with you Steven. I appreciate you, and am now gonna check out “The Creative Process” link below.

    • June 25, 2011 at 4:47 am

      @Colleen:
      “I wrote the word RESISTANCE on a piece of paper then drew a red circle around it and a line throught it. I pinned it up above my computer.”

      Thanks for sharing that – a good idea and encouragement to “go into battle”!

      Be well, Niels Koschoreck*

  11. May 26, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Wow, how true. Deadened or exorcised. Sink or swim. Fight or flight.

    And how true the extraordinary observation of having ‘a foot in both camps’…

  12. May 26, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Your posts are a lighthouse Steven. Thanks for lighting the way :-)

  13. May 26, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Thank you for your thoughts and the entry. What comes to my mind reading it is: Motion is not to be confused with Action. It is so easy to busy ourselves up and miss the point of action = Doing the WORK. Thank you for your inspiration.

  14. May 26, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    I don’t want to drive anyone away Steven’s website, but when you’ve finished reading here my New Zealand-based website wordsSHIFTminds (“Writing that changes your mind”) has an interview with Mr Pressfield here.

  15. May 26, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    Irish Despair. Finally a name to give to something I have felt my whole life. Feeling the realm of beauty, while living in the mundane, is a clarion call to the artist within. How I long to shed this Irish despair, and yet it gives a certain something to life…maybe just a story about life, that, at the end of the day, holds no water.

  16. May 27, 2011 at 4:34 am

    “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” – CS Lewis, 1942, ‘The Weight of Glory’

  17. May 27, 2011 at 8:27 am

    All the words aren’t enough and no words are too many to describe how this blog profoundly affects me. Sometimes words don’t work, but thank you.

  18. Thomas
    May 29, 2011 at 1:04 am

    Poetry and philosophy in one beautiful riff, Stephen. This is why I loved “Bagger Vance” so much, even if I never could shoot a golf ball straight ;o)

    Channeling the inimitable Alan Watts, if we really lived forever, every experience would turn into a re-run. My great-aunt (1892-1992) was beginning to complain about that as she was pushing 100. As Watts muses, we need both a memory and a forgettory; that’s death. Watts was a western zen buddhist, so he saw the “I” as a playful illusion that the mind plays on itself. I must admit I’m not there yet, so I like the nobility of personal being that you describe so well, Stephen. Nevertheless, there’s also a “forgettory effect” in losing oneself in those rare moments where creating (be it art or less exalted creation) just FLOWS, effortlessly. That’s most often when you do your best creating – I would have said “your best work”, except it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like like the alcohol or drug high, except you are MORE aware, not less as in the case of drug-induced highs. That “artistic high” is addictive, too. But, IMHO, that’s a good addiction, and one worth working for ;o)

  19. marianne
    May 30, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    thank you for sharing your transparency, this helps me understand a part of me that is in the mix of other blood lines. Like a blend of different grapes to make a bottle of wine. Cheers!

  20. marianne
    May 30, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    like a blend of grapes in a body bag of wine is our blood lines. Cheers to being an artist!

  21. Grayson
    June 4, 2011 at 9:03 am

    I was once a warrior, a voyager, and an aspiring poet. Now I am a thirty one year old retail furniture salesman. I don’t know why.

  22. JFM
    June 6, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Being an Irish, Pisces, makes that line between artist and addict, engagement and escape, very blurry at the best of times. Thanks for the quote.

  23. June 9, 2011 at 5:49 am

    For the great Gaels of Ireland
    Are the men that God made mad,
    For all their wars are merry,
    And all their songs are sad.
    -G.K. Chesterton

    Mr. Pressfield,

    Your writings are always beautiful, insightful, and this post is no exception.

    Thank you,
    Aaron Fung

  24. Sleepy
    June 22, 2011 at 3:57 am

    I’m probably going to regret posting this.

    What if this planet, this consciousness, was a hospital for the criminally insane of the rest of the worlds, and the reason we aspire so differently to various higher causes, is to escape our own wards and get back to our own worlds, and, well: stuff like that. Nothing you have written so far (about honour, courage, NOT crapping out) denies this. Just asking.

  25. August 26, 2011 at 7:39 am

    Just finished “Do The Work” 3 days ago. The result:

    1. I’m unlocked. The stuff I am writing might be the crappiest work I’ve ever done, but I’ll worry about that later. Right now, it won’t stop pouring out of me and it’s amazing. Writer’s block? Not today.

    2. All of the fears and doubts (I suck, this will never work, I am f***ing this up, the end result won’t live up to expectations) you mention in the book have suddenly jumped out in the open. It’s just bizarre. It doesn’t feel like one enemy either, one dragon. It feels like a whole squad of them, each its own distinctive force, intelligent, angry, violent. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Call me crazy, but they feel almost like a physical force. Like ghosts. Like a haunting. Before reading your book, I would have freaked out and backed off. Now, I know it only means one thing: I’m on the right track. (Either that or I’ve lost my mind, which is fine too.) Either way, thank you. Those little books of yours – The War of Art, Do the Work, The Warrior Ethos – they’re like little pebbles making big ripples. Cheers. ;)

  26. November 10, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Last month, we viewed the art exhibition “Mysteries of the Sotoportego” in Venice, and spoke with the artist, Pierre Case at length (mostly, he spoke to us, passionately). A famous Swiss artist and community leader, he suffered a debilitating stroke a decade ago. His recovery came in Venice through courage, frustration and determination, and found voice in his study of all sotoportego (under-passages) – the fear of heading into the dark unknown, the dim passage through, the light of new life emerging beyond. This gave him a Renaissance and full life in his new work – first illustrating his comprehensions. Seems to fit right into The Pain of Being Human. (I wrote an article on my blog the other day about his journey). How simple are most of our “blocks” and “pains” in comparison, yet we struggle with coming to terms, facing and persevering through them! Thanks for your insights!

  27. June 17, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    Brilliant piece, Steven. I think that part of a writer’s responsibility to call people’s attention to their lives here on earth while they have it. Whether we are describing the way the clouds roll over a hillside in Ireland, pulling into focus the way that a stove-top catches the flame of a match, or hearing a child’s laugh, we’re trying to slow people down and help them appreciate their lives. At the same time, we’re trying to hook the themes and meaning of the heartaches and joys that we all experience and cast some light on them in view of eternity.

  28. July 9, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    I just stumbled upon this from listening to an audio with Jonathan Fields. I do believe I will be having some interaction with you. One major comment to the above post; I believe whether artist or addict, both take work! I don’t necessarily agree with the resistance to being human as much as (alcohol, drugs) do what they are suppose to for a period of time. Or are you saying that there has to be pain to be human? I do know that when I can identify the ‘feeling’ I have a better way of moving through it. Most addicts/alcoholic are predestined, and the desease started way before they picked up their salvation. Alcohol/Drugs are the instrument used to get to recovery. Without it, they would not have a blueprint for living.

  29. Jennifer
    March 3, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Steve tell me is this naval gazing crap? was reading The War of Art today while feeling sick in bed and was inspired to go back to a place of pain. I am not a writer but have been told to try it.

    who amd I ??

    I am a wounded woman
    Scarred from a child
    Hurt by the indifference of a too busy mom
    A disconnected dad who worked too much
    To ease his own inner emptiness

    A proud man once betrayed by the one he so loved
    Stands tall in stature but small as a man
    Comfort in his church alone in his beliefs
    The bed he sleeps in is single alone in his room

    For me what do I remember what do I see
    Life in a poor apt above the smelly shop
    The purveyor of fish and the crisp yummy chips
    The smell that permeated all things and all day.

    It was from that I was taken to be cared for
    By the mean and indifferent the cold and so cruel
    Frightened so young with the sting of unmerited scorn
    Waiting alone on the concrete for moms known embrace

    Day after day to that bleak ugly place
    So dark and so dingy but memories mercifully few
    But deep in my psyche the scars still ring true
    Haunting me ever from that distant strange place

    Why do the memories ring true to this day
    I am not worthy of the love of the room
    Still trying today to be just loved and respected
    Failing miserably to find that place to accept and to be

    This ugly truth, or is it a lie that plagues my soul
    I am unworthy, a lightweight, a charlatan at best
    Hiding the pain that fills up my soul -my poor soul of despair
    The despair that creeps like a fog over all

    It is what it is and this it will be
    Forever a part of me never at peace
    Filled to brim with respect and some honour
    To the void of the universe I seek to be filled

    To forgive the past to find peace in the Presence
    Perhaps to withdraw and start anew
    To stop trying to mask and disguise the empty raw truth
    And allow myself time to nurse all the wounds

    To find peace in the moment to write with the Muse
    To pour out the revelations to find my place
    I fear my only true place for peace is alone
    No friend, no family, no connection of pain

    To admit and embrace the loner I am
    To give myself leave to connect ever so lightly
    To try not so hard pouring out so much
    To my children my friends and my love

    To realize whatever I do is just never enough
    Too much for respect too much for honour
    Just more is expected and little returned
    The vastness of empty now overwhelms

    Need to say good bye for now
    Held hostage by fear to say enough is enough
    No more to give- to share- or to hope
    Just the chill of hoping for hope to be filled

    Lord give me strength to be strong to
    Find who I am and not be cowed
    To release the ennui and the loss
    To find my fulfillment, my peace, my place of Grace.

    March 3/2013 the day before my sixty-second birthday