I wanted to read this book when Angela Deutschman wrote in a recent newsletter: “For a long time I’ve been wondering about a strange phenomenon that I regularly spot in myself and clients: that of being especially resistant to the very activity that will bring about our highest state of joy / purpose / service. And I’m not talking about just being mildly resistant but magnificently – impressively – able to concoct clever and justifiable reasons not to ever do it, or ever do it seriously anyway. If this sounds like you, then I encourage you to read the two books that are turning this around for me: The War of Art and Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield. If you are getting tired of your own procrastination and excuses about why not to paint / write / start an NGO / create a new app / adopt a baby / start exercising then this will frame your resistance in a dramatic, though very useful, context.”
Mindful of my own quirks of resistance – endless procrastination is one – I ordered the War of Art immediately and when it arrived, collected it promptly. Knowing we were about to go away for a week’s holiday where all that would be required of me was to laze about, I planned to take it with me and was very much looking forward to reading it. When it came time to pack however, the book was nowhere to be found. I searched everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Eventually, after searching in all the obvious places, I looked in the laundry basket, the rubbish bin and feeling incredibly irritated and foolish, even the fridge. In vain. I left without it in the end. Now if that isn’t a “magnificently impressive” act of resistance, I don’t know what is. All week I secretly fretted over this book, knowing I had brought it into the house only for it to mysteriously vanish.
On returning home, I found it quite quickly. It was – predictably – in the linen cupboard. The memory of picking up the book at the same time as picking up some towels to put away en route came back to me with perfect clarity. Once it was in my hands again, I read it in one sitting, lest I manage to lose it again.
Resistance, as Pressfield says so eloquently in highly readable short shots of distilled wisdom – is invisible, insidious, infallible and never sleeps. “Most of us” he writes “have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance…You think Resistance isn’t real? Resistance will bury you. You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At 18, he took his inheritance and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”
The truth of Pressfield’s insights hits you like a punch in the guts you didn’t see coming – it hurts and you aren’t able to dodge it. But it only hurts because you’ve let yourself go soft in the middle, molly-coddling yourself by not facing a far greater pain – that of not showing up in your own life. It is exactly as Pressfield points out; of the 11 potential activities he lists which elicit greatest resistance one of them is “any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals.”
Perhaps most liberating was how the book got me to see things differently. I’ve always seen Self-Doubt as an enemy, that nagging herald of self-sabotage who sidles in at your lowest point softly jeering “Are you really an artist? Do you really think you can pull off this new business venture?” Instead, Pressfield reframes Self-doubt completely, calling it an ally. Self-doubt, he says “ can serve as an indicator of aspiration. It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”
I’ve found my own resistance is strongest when it comes to doing anything compelled by the heart. I know immediately when my heart is at work because it is then my mind steps in with its most powerful weapon: Irrefutable Logic. Logic as an opponent to the way of the heart is so cunning because you’re duped into trying to outwit it using the laws of its own language. But you can’t argue for the heart with language of the mind. There is only one way out; through “senseless and true action”. Logic has no power here. So I sit here strumming my guitar working on a song even though logic tells me in step-by-step detail the pointlessness of my efforts. I allow love to find its way through, in circumstances that logic tells me are beyond redemption. I let go the thing that logic says is the best I’ll ever have and ask for more.
Pressfield is funny, pithy and annoyingly impervious to any rationalised exceptions you might try to apply to your own situation. Rationalisation being of course, Resistance’s “right hand man and spin doctor”. Resistance is always coming up with new and ingenious ways to block your creative path, it’s abundantly fertile in its ability to change the scenery daily so you’re always having to master a new landscape. But it’s also at the point of greatest uncertainty that creativity thrives – out of the unknown comes something new.
I thought I was well on my way to digging myself out from under Resistance through my own efforts; but this book reminds me I need help and have been receiving it all along in so many different ways. We all need regular bursts of encouragement especially in our macho culture of being oh so swiss-army-knife self-sufficient. The War of Art has the warm bracing presence of someone offering you a steady hand whilst at the same time handing you the shovel to do the work for yourself. In other words, a true friend.