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[Creative Benefits of Altruism]

[Elizabeth W. Bennefeld]
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"A Child's Vision" by Amelia Campbell

My sister Christine is a writer. I'm proud of her, and so I do a lot of bragging about her to my friends and acquaintances. Some writers I know have mentioned that they're really pleased I seem so excited and overjoyed by her successes. One acquaintance in particular seemed to think it remarkable that I wasn't jealous. She was surprised that I would praise my sister and boast about her accomplishments instead of cutting her down. This leads me to wonder how many of us cannot or do not look to our families for support and encouragement as we travel through The Artist's Way.

The programming from childhood, both from our families and from our schools, can be devastating. Some children are permanently damaged by "constructive criticism" that seeks to mold everyone into acceptable patterns, and others are so indoctrinated in the competitive model that unless they're first, they feel that they've failed. If one of my sisters is a wonderful novelist and the other is an amazing visual artist, then according to this doctrine, I must have lost. I didn't come out on top. I'm not supposed to be proud of them. I'm supposed to be green with envy and ashamed of myself as a failure.

To come out on top--that internal demand can turn our lives into a war zone. Everyone's an enemy, standing in the way of our attaining self-worth. We've got to be the best, or we don't count. I've got to run the fastest, pen the coolest poem, sing the solo parts in the choir, and write a bestseller. My other option is bow out altogether and let it be known that I'm not even going to try.

The Artist's Way, throughout the 12 weeks of the program, helps us to get a handle on this particular creative roadblock. I'm me, and I can't be compared to someone else. My sister's achievements--your achievements, too, for that matter--promote the worth of creativity for all of us. Artistic achievement is something to be admired, whether it's a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel or a child's first clay sculpture. If nobody's art matters but mine, if my way is the only "right" way of doing something, then I may be "King of the Mountain," but that mountain's going to be a pretty small mole hill. I will have succeeded only in devaluing my own achievements in the process of trying to look better by diminishing others.

For a while my e-mail signature sported the quotation, "The antithesis of altruism is nihilism." Nowhere is this more true than in the arena of artistic accomplishment. None of us is an expert in everything. If we try to go it alone, become a success by using and discarding people or by ignoring them and making it without help, we've stacked the deck against ourselves. The energy that is created when artists come together in collaboration is fantastic! The success of one person enables the others. We build upon one another's accomplishments.

Often, in the opening weeks of The Artist's Way, we get lost in our "Monster Hall of Fame," remembering all the people from our childhood and youth who put us down. In the later weeks of the creative recovery program, as we learn how to mentor the others in our small group and nurture ourselves, we recognize more clearly the positive influences from our early years. Many of us are surprised to discover that some of those who peopled our "Monster Hall of Fame" also occupy our "Hall of Champions."

For various reasons, I had not realized during childhood that I was supposed to be competing with my siblings or anyone else. Quite frankly, I had so much trouble trying to figure out how the world worked in general, I didn't have time or energy left over to worry about what my peer group was doing. Until recently, I would even have sworn I wasn't goal oriented. I now recognize, however, that my goals are so internalized and I am so single-minded that I simply have not recognized my goals as such. In discovering this about myself, I find that other people's valuations of me are easier to understand.

Sharing the experiences of others who are traveling through The Artist's Way is at once humbling and enlightening. Other people seem so very aware of themselves and their abilities. They can articulate their goals. They know what their talents are and how to use them. And, as they read what I write and listen to what I say, they reflect back to me revelations about myself. They show me who I am from perspectives that I would never have, otherwise.

The Artist's Way is not simply a creative recovery program in terms of recovering one's ability to "do" one's art. It is for many a recovery (or discovery) of self. Recovery takes place as we share and affirm one another. And, within this sacred circle of nurturing community, competition and jealousy are foreign concepts. Those negative emotions no longer create barriers that block our creativity or terrify the "artist child" within us. So, we can indulge the inner child in artistic creation and help others to do the same.

Altruism really is the antithesis of nihilism. As we open our arms and give ourselves freely to our art, this gift pours out to nurture others, who, in turn, give to us through the practice of their unique art. Because our arms are open and outstretched, rather than wrapped protectively around ourselves, we are free to embrace all that the Creative Spirit can give us. If we will not give, we cannot receive.

Note: "The Artist's Way" is a 12-week creative recovery program developed by Julia Cameron and laid out in her book, THE ARTIST'S WAY: A SPIRITUAL PATH TO HIGHER CREATIVITY, published by Tarcher/Putnam

Copyright © November 1998, by Elizabeth W. Bennefeld.


Elizabeth W. Bennefeld has earned a living as a freelance writer, copyeditor and academic style editor in Fargo, North Dakota, since 1984. Previously, she was employed by a regional bank corporation in computer operations. Bennefeld received a bachelor of arts degree in English and philosophy, and her poetry and prose have appeared in literary and other publications since the late 1960s.

E-mail Elizabeth W. Bennefeld at


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