Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Art Helps Us Deal with Suffering

I was having coffee with a friend the other day, and we were talking about the struggles of the creative life. The topic of art and suffering came up.

Photo of The Scream by Van Gogh

Photo credit: Christopher Macsurak (Creative Commons)

My friend is a photographer, struggling with his own need to make a living, while being true to his calling to create good art. Through the conversation, we both learned that it’s tough to be an artist. Tough, but necessary.

A call for generosity

Being an artist means to be generous. It means God has given you a gift you need to share with the world. And the world is a messed-up place. It’s hurting and confused.

The world is suffering.

Art helps us make sense of the suffering. Not by spouting off cliches or offering trite platitudes, but by speaking to that inner voice inside each of us that says,

Yes, this sucks, but there is still beauty. There is still hope for redemption.

Sometimes, life doesn’t make sense. Sometimes, there is just pain. Without explanation or reason. And that is when art serves us best — when words fail and we are numbed by what we see. When all we can do is cry.

It helps us not escape our pain but transcend it. It doesn’t give us a reason for our suffering, but it gives meaning to our lives.

The artist’s burden

The curse of the artist is that she must bear the burden of the world’s pain.

To paint a picture or write a song that soothes someone’s suffering means you have to experience their agony — to have compassion, to suffer with. How else can you speak to what they’re feeling?

To be an artist is to suffer. But not without meaning. Not without purpose. To be an artist is also to create something beautiful that can alleviate pain.

This is what great art can do:

  • Sit silently with a friend who is mourning.
  • Speak comfort and consolation without saying a word.
  • Sing a note that shakes a shattered soul.

Great art is transcendent; it goes beyond the moment, not by ignoring but by empathizing. It cannot undo, but it can redeem. It acknowledges the night, while reminding us that joy still comes in the morning.

How does art help you deal with suffering? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Excellent!! I have put off checking out other blogs and presently I am kicking myself… I would be dead without this gift. I would have nowhere to go with the turmoil, hate, joy and hope that lives in me and those am close to. Thank you… jt

    • Jeff Goins

      Thanks!

  • This is so true. Years ago when I was going through infertility and pregnancy loss, before our daughter Jadyn came along, I was grieving deeply and didn’t know what to do with everything going on inside my heart.

    I was talking with friend of mine who was an artist (paint, graphic, etc) and I told her that sometimes I wanted to get a giant canvas and just throw paint at it. I’d never painted before (music was my typical expression), but she encouraged me to go ahead and do it.

    I did get some canvas and paint and found that to be a therapeutic way to deal with my struggles. I’m so grateful for her encouragement to do that – I still pull out the paint sometimes!

    • Jeff Goins

      Love that! Art is therapeutic. Glad you did this.

  • Pat

    This is quiet and truthfilled and lovely. Thanks for reposting.

    • Jeff Goins

      Thanks, Pat. That means a lot coming from you.

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  • I presume you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing? He says something so powerful about art in that book that it’s been stuck in the forefront of my mind ever since. And I think it ties in very well with your post:

    “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

    If–no, not if, but when–we as “artists” get these two mixed up, that’s when the stuff hits the fan.

    Though I will likely never play in his league, I think this is what killed Hemingway. He could no longer live the life he thought he needed to in order to support his art. So he killed himself.

    That’s the real danger: that life become about nothing but the art, becomes secondary to it, when instead the art should be illuminating, explaining, and focusing upon life.

    Anyway, that’s my $.02.

    • I’m reading it right now. I love that quote.

  • Amy Nabors

    I think this is why so many artists whether they be writers, painters, etc are often very intuitive of the suffering of others. I know personally when those closest to me are hurting I hurt deeply with them.

  • leon gonzalez

    This helped me, thanks

    Believe me, in my town there’s violence, suffering, terror, we need Art saying,

    God loves you and takes care of you

  • Oh yes, most definitely. Art has help me cope and survive.

  • Jeff,

    Timely reminder for me. My family has been dealing with some pain this week…my first inclination was to create. I made a whole new site with a new concept.

    It appears that tragedy can either kill our spirit or fuel it. I think that choice is ours. I’ve seen both in various forms and can’t help but hurt for those who choose the former

  • Rhonda (@thewritespark)

    Art helps you deal with grief and the pain associated with grief.  It helps soothe the  aches that life throws your way.  It gives you hope.

    Many writers are empathetic to the suffering of those around them.  By expressing that gamut of negative emotions, we can help lessen its potentially detrimental effects and share the experience of the human condition with others.

    Thanks for the post.  🙂

    • you’re welcome, Rhonda! I completely agree with what you said about empathetic writers. those are my favorite kind. 🙂

  • John

    I think that what you say is pretty close to the mark but seems a bit downbeat. What about art that springs from the simple enjoyment of being alive on this amazing planet? OK I admit that there isn’t a single one of us that hasn’t experienced pain but the pain is such a small part of our existence that most art should therefore essentially arise from the wonder of our simply being here now.

    I remember the Millenium celebrations and realising for the vast majority of the world’s people the 2000 year anniversary means nothing. What we saw was a planet revelling in the wonder of simply being here now and for the forseeable future.

    That was, and is, art in its highest form!

    • Katharine Trauger

      Hi, John,
      I agree with art for expression of joy, also, but find this not in total contradiction of what Jeff said. When I am down, a photo of something uplifting can lift me, can alleviate my pain, can give me a moment of respite from it all. Sometimes, rather than someone to join us in our downward spiral, we need someont to help us get up, tie our shoes, and take a walk.
      Laughter, after all, does good like medicine.

  • J. Michael McDade

    Great post Jeff, and so true. It is so easy for me to scream “woe is me” when I work on my art, but there is this deeper satisfaction that comes through the suffering when the work is done.

    • Yes, Michael. We must love the work itself, not just the fruit of it.

  • Excellent insight and so true. When I was going through a very dark time, art gave life and light to my path. I took up water color and I believe it helped to keep me alive and gave me a something to look forward to. Also, I’ve found much healing through my writing. Writing has helped me process my feelings and brought order to my world. Art and writing does relieve suffering. Great point and very motivating. Beauty and the expression of it brings healing.

  • Especially during undergrad, when my friends would complain about a situation, my (often less-than-empathetic) response was always, “Write about it.” Creating is a way to deal with suffering and less than idea situations. Some really good art often comes from it too.

    Katie

  • Katharine Trauger

    I seem to get the drift, here, that writing is not art . . .
    I’m sure that was not the intent . . .
    However, if that is the definition of art, then when a woman wins her husband without a word, when Chrisitans are the only Bible some people will read, our very lives become art.

    • I’m not sure where you picked that up. Of course, I believe writing is art. And I agree that our lives can be art. Well said.

      • Katharine Trauger

        As I said, I was sure I was not grasping everything, but got hung up on the following
        “that is when art serves us best — when words fail ”
        “This is what great art can do:
        Sit silently with a friend who is mourning.Speak comfort and consolation without saying a word.”

        Thanks for clearing it up, though. I do like this post.

  • Andrea

    Though it’s an old, romantic notion that great art grows out of and addresses suffering, I’d prefer to think that great art grows out of commitment and intention and selflessness.  Of course, great art can and often does bring solace. 

    • I like that, Andrea. Thanks for sharing.

  • I find that it helps me to create things that are more personal, but not things that are commercial. 

  • Art lets me express what is inside. What I REALLY think. What I feel. It taps into another area that is impossible to express otherwise. 

  • Art soothes and inspires and lifts my heart. I just happen to be featuring the work of an amazing artist (and my dear friend) on my blog right now. Makes me so happy to share her work.

  • Holly Grantham

    Yes.  I’m reminded of Gungor’s  song “You Make Beautiful Things” and that
    “…all around, hope is springing up from this old ground…out of chaos life is being found in You.”
    What a privilege it is to join in creation.

    • love that song.

    • Toni

      My favorite song! I have created some pieces based on that song!

  • Interesting you chose the painting you did to go along with this article. Do you know the story of suffering behind this artist? It is VERY interesting!

  • After an initial burst of negativity, writing allowed me to focus on mor positives thoughts rather than negativem

  • “Great art is transcendent; it goes beyond the moment, not by ignoring but by empathizing. It cannot undo, but it can redeem.”  I love this. 

  • Thank you for this reminder. I’m going to share it with my fellow art students.

  • “The curse of the artist is that she must bear the burden of the world’s
    pain,” is a true statement if there ever was one.  Art isn”t always pretty. Sometimes, its painful because that’s the world we sometimes experience.

  • Because of the healing power of art in my own personal story, I started a non profit called Dandelion Wishes and have dedicated my life in sharing the healing powers of art.  I take this gift of art to the prisons, the rehab hospitals, the juvenile detention centers, the safe houses, hospitals, churches, etc. And I have the honor of working with the abused, rejected, victimized, prisoner, orphan, widowed,broken, hurting,  etc…  I just show up with paint brushes, journals, colored pencils, paints, etc..and watch as the healing powers of art do its therapeutic work.  Art never lets anyone down.  Art is always right for the creator.  Please visit my website and see what I have dedicated my life to.  ART HEALS.  https://dandelion-wishes.org.

  • Charles Tutt

    Jeff, ‘art’ doesn’t usually “do it” for me. Mostly, I do not appreciate the ‘creative expressions’ of most painters. Their messages, if they have one, simply don’t come through for or to me. Sorry, I just don’t resonate with them.

    WORDS! Words for me are THE ART! They inspire me. They resonate with me. They relate truth (relative to my personal experience) to me, others and history.

    My highest goal in this life is to master the art of words in a way that moves, inspires and motivates others to see life through my life and use that as a springboard to further theirs and global society as a whole.

    • Thanks, Charles. I mean to use “art” loosely — so that would include words, music, etc.

  • Charles Tutt

      Jeff,
    ‘art’ doesn’t usually “do it” for me. Mostly, I do not appreciate the
    ‘creative expressions’ of most painters. Their messages, if they have
    one, simply don’t come through for or to me. Sorry, I just don’t
    resonate with them.

    WORDS! Words for me are THE ART! They inspire me. They resonate with
    me. They relate truth (relative to my personal experience) to me, others
    and history.

    My highest goal in this life is to master the art of words in a way
    that moves, inspires and motivates others to see life through my life
    and use that as a springboard to further theirs and global society as a
    whole.

    Like Reply

  • Shari

    Julia Cameron writes that emotion and suffering can be positive fuel for the artist. “Smoldering anger and resentment become the ashes for a phoenix to rise from,” she quotes in her book The Right to Write.

    Writing and painting our emotions help us to get to the other side, to see other sides, to witness the whole picture, to discover the lesson.

    Art is a release of pain.

  • During the ‘bad ole days’  I spent most nights journaling and writing poems. It was a way to find myself in the midst of unbelievable pain and chaos  As I wrote every night for 3-4 hours, I didn’t realize it, but I was (finally) letting out the voice that I had stifled for so long.  I was so tired of people telling me who I was and not seeing truly seeing or understanding me.  This when I discovered my self through words.   In an abusive marriage and a shattered marriage… I wrote:  

    I live in a world
    of sardonic men
    who carve my bones,

    then tell me
    its only my imagination….

    all the while, all the while
    I kept wondering

    how my arms and legs……… 

                                                        got over there.

    Journal 1975/Jolie101415@aol:disqus .com

    ——————————————————————————-

    It was many years before I got out of this marriage, but I wrote every night.  Too many years later, he finally told what he was doing to me and why.  His threat ‘if you leave me  I will strip the bank accounts, take your car, take (our son), and make you penniless and on the street’  was terrifying.  I didn’t know how to take care of myself and he as a military officer. 

    And when I did go, he kept his promise.  As a mother, losing my son (not because I was a bad mother but because I did not have the money to fight…. my son feels abandoned even though he does what his dad did.  

    Scars may not heal, but they can put the pen to paper and give you freedom to recognize your past and rewrite your future, even though it seems so terribly frightening.

  • Slight correction in typing…..

    wrote: , losing my son (not because I was a bad mother but because I did not
    have the money to fig…. my son feels abandoned even though he  knows 
    what his dad did.  

  • Barbara

    I am a firm believer in honoring your gifts.  When I first openly admitted, when someone asked the ridiculous question ‘what do you do?’, I’m an artist.  It changed my life.  I can’t imagine life without art and words.
    Thanks Jeff,
    b

  • Ctutt

    Ok, Jeff, my previous post didn’t refer to ‘suffering’.

    Aren’t we ALL suffering? Suffering from:
    job boredom (if we’re lucky enough to have a job ‘even though we may be unappreciative’)
    marriage boredom (if we’re lucky enough to have a spouse even though we may be unappreciative of the one we have)
    life boredom even though we may not recognize or appreciate how much we are better off than most of the rest of the world population and what we could actually offer the world.
    how can/could we do more? (if we’re lucky enough to have REAL purpose and MEANING in our lives?)
    Well, ok, writers, listen up! Here’s your opportunity! And

    Thank You Jeff, for inspiring us!

    • Are we all suffering? Maybe. But I do think we have a choice how the pain around us affects us. I am learning this myself.

  • Art helps me bear suffering: when I am lonely, I practice music, or listen to music, or both (serially). When I am angry, I write. When I am devastated, sometimes a novel or a painting will pull me out of it. Music is the clearest channel to my emotions, so if I am suffering because I am trying to block them out all I need is the radio or iTunes (but it is better if I sing myself or go to hear live music).

  • circumstance +perspective =  experience
    (See Philippians)
    Artists SEE everything, rich, full, deep.

    Yesterday my kitty died, today a grey, drizzly Monday morning, Karen Carpenter is singing in my head “rainy days and Mondays”…but my 16 year old daughter and I are going to go for a date painting at the Pottery Studio. Her 4 brothers are all gone this week, camp, work etc. Not missing any sun or fun. Creating something together.

    • I agree that artists sometimes experience more of the world than others, which includes the pain and rain, as well.

  • What a beautiful post! I struggle with OCD. Music and other forms of art have been like soothing medication at times of great pain and suffering. I believe that God has blessed us with art to comfort us in this broken world.

  • Jen Sagiao

    Thank you for this. I’m just learning about my artist self and have always felt that my ‘sensitivity’ has been something to get rid of instead of nurture. It’s nice to know that there is a purpose to feeling so deeply. 

  • Art with a sketch book unravels the tangles of life complexities, pencil lining my way leading to clarity of thought, connection to self.  Art with a paintbrush allows the colors of hope to spill on my canvas, leading to answers of His presence, connection with Him.  Art with a keyboard shares the places in me that struggle with the outside world of circumstances, leading me to connection with others.  I wonder, if I buy the bag of concrete longingly eyed on the shelf, where it would lead, what connections would be made?

  • michael platania

    I realize you wrote this from the point of view of suffering, but for me art – and more specifically my writing and photography (which I consider art) is always approached from the view point of hope.  Everything I do, I do with the intention of providing hope.  I don’t always hit the mark, and sometimes the hope might be to survive a difficult time. I certainly go through my own personal suffering in creating art, but that is not the intention behind it.  

  • Art gives us a friend when we’re totally alone! 

    I love your point that as artists we take on the suffering of others, and offer comfort to others. A lot of us pour ourselves into art because it soothes our own suffering, but you’re right about our ability to take that to the next step. We have to consider the solace it will give to others, as well.

  • Justin Parker

    Very straightforward and simple, but I really enjoyed your message. This is a worthy purpose for art – one that inspires me.

    “It acknowledges the night, while reminding us that joy still comes in the morning.” Great line.

  • Terri Kahrs

    Jeff, your post touched my heart and –  more importantly – my soul. My husband has recently been through a terrible healthcare crisis – I’ve been his principle caretaker for over six months. Stress and exhaustion are no strangers in my world. I’d no way to cope – my art had “stopped” for healthcare time – until a week ago. I started a new journal (a healing journal) for myself. You’re absolutely right  . . . . art begins to speak when there are no words left to say. Thank you.

  • Kriztalladen

    Wow! This is so timely. I am experiencing a kind of suffering right now and I thank the Lord for giving me the art of music and the art of dancing which I use to relieve the stress, to strengthen my faith, and to lighten up my soul. I have created a playlist in my iPhone and put there all the happy and the inspiring songs that I would listen to whenever worry shows its face to me. And in the midst of fear, I dance in the comfort of my own home when I’m not able to go to a studio. Sometimes, I create my own steps to keep my mind working and after perspiring a lot, I feel a great sense of strength and courage to face whatever I need to face. There’s really something wonderful in creating and appreciating art that one can never explain. When art has invaded one’s system just like how music and dance have invaded me, everything is in balance, everything falls into place.

  • i think it reminds me that i have a choice and that by writing.. i find myself and the true essence of who i am, and that is MORE THAN my pain…

    • Bonnie

      i like this 🙂

  • The act of putting pain(t) on canvas has helped me constantly over the years. Whether I finish the painting isn’t the point. It’s in the making of it that I find peace. A kind of worship, I guess, when I don’t have the words to say.

  • Jeremie

    Love your blog Jeff. To study this concept in depth check out “Drops Like Stars” by Rob Bell. The understanding of the relationship between art and suffering can bring new life to those who create. Great stuff!

  • jorgeacevedo

    Good word! People using the art of being there does help us refocus and find strength.

  • Sherrey Meyer

    The word “art” encompasses so many things — painting and drawing, writing both prose and/or poetry, music both playing/composing, dance, theater — we could go on.  So, for each of us, in one form or another, we speak through one of these forms or we are comforted by one of them.

    For me it is some of each.  I write because to write for me is to heal and to also give hope to others coming behind or alongside.  I also enjoy reading and listening to music, both of which calm my soul when troubled.  I volunteer to bring comfort and hope to others while at the same time gentling my own days by seeing what life could be like.

    That may sound just a lot of rambling but I feel so much when I read or hear the word “art.”  I just couldn’t make it as easy and straightforward as  you’ve done here, Jeff!

  • Excellent, excellent post.  Speaks to what I’ve been trying to convey and exactly how I feel as a composer:  that what I write is to be shared and I hope, more than anything, that it simply resonates with others.

  • Kristin

    This post of mine, https://ponderingsbykris.blogspot.com/2012/05/talents-for-therapy.html is the perfect answer to your question. . .if you have time, I’d like you to come to this link and read my answer.  Thanks!

  • Music and Poetry do it for me.  They help me connect to the secret place beyond the shadows of pain.

  • Jeff,

    Excellent post. Art reminds me that the dark part of living is part of the beautiful bigger picture.   

  • Artists have another burden too. To speak the unspeakable. What is unspeakable to a ‘non-artist’, true artist can find a way to express it. I believe that this is where the pain comes from. The ability to speak and express for others, for the rest of the world. It is painful, but it is a blessing too. 
    Artist will help me let off the steam, artist will speak for me, artist will help me suffer by suffering with me and as a result the pain and suffering is gone much quicker.

    I love this post because the connection between art and our daily lives is one of many things that fascinates me.

    Cheers

  • Artists have another burden too. To speak the unspeakable. What is unspeakable to a ‘non-artist’, true artist can find a way to express it. I believe that this is where the pain comes from. The ability to speak and express for others, for the rest of the world. It is painful, but it is a blessing too. 
    Artist will help me let off the steam, artist will speak for me, artist will help me suffer by suffering with me and as a result the pain and suffering is gone much quicker.

    I love this post because the connection between art and our daily lives is one of many things that fascinates me.

    Cheers

  • Thank you SO much for this – I really needed to hear it. A light clicked on for me as I read this – ah, I don’t have a personality defect whereby I feel too much – I am an Artist! Thank you – it prompted my own reflection this week – On art and being difficult – https://tanyamarlow.com/?p=1337

    I listed your post at the bottom as inspiration for my blog post this week – many, many thanks. Hope you are getting enough sleep these days, and that your excitement for the Big Day is building!

  • great point. a lot of artists are empaths. i’m blogging a little bit about this tomorrow.

  • Kathy Staton

    I have changed my schedule availability to 4 to 3 days at my part-time job to accommodate my creative work as a graphic designer and writer. This is a passion in my heart since high school (and maybe before then). It is out of my comfort zone because of what other people think about making enough money to pay for different things. I’m in a position where I don’t have to pay rent or utilities–just car insurance and groceries. It was now or never. Sometimes, it gets lonely when others don’t understand your dreams or your need to do something crazy or dangerous. But I have to admit, I don’t feel like I want to go back and do the mediocre thing again. I think it’s fear that is wanting to add more hours to my work schedule at my PT job to make more money, and to be accepting to other people. I’m looking at the situation that I have an opportunity to work this job to make even more money. When I earn a consistent $10,000-11,000, I plan on letting go of the PT job.

  • bradblackman

    Are you familiar with God in the Gallery by Dan Siedell? I think it talks about this very thing to a large extent. It is on my reading list.

  • Lydia Liliana Hostovecka

    Hey! I’m working on a thesis about analysing suffering in poetry. Having some trouble, have any tips? Any idea about how is suffering perceived in literature? Where can I find this kind of stuff? Thanks a lot!

  • Connie Inglis

    I am an artist and am encouraged by your words today. Thanks. And thanks for allowing God to use you to speak to the world.

  • dan pre

    it touched mu heart and adsense us some time