The Man in the Dirty Shroud
Maintaining Creative Courage.
Staying open to the experiences of other people isn’t always easy. However, it is critical in maintaining creative courage — a human quality, defined by the ability to create without the intrusion of self-judgment.
Case in point: I’d just arrived in New York City. It was early morning, but the temperature was racing upward. The weather reports were dire. By 2:00 p.m., it was more than one hundred degrees in the shade. I visit Manhattan at least three or four times a year for work and to see my grown kids who live there. The city stimulates my senses, just as it did when I was in my twenties and called Hell’s Kitchen home. The sights and sounds of the human drama in the streets are as good as or better than the best theater—and a whole lot less expensive.
But each time I circle back to New York, I undergo an adjustment period of several days as I acclimate to the noise, the rats, and the unfortunate people who have no permanent place to live. That year, several of them situated themselves just a stone’s throw from the apartment where I stayed. I find it troubling that I can “adjust” to the sight of downtrodden panhandlers in all their poverty and distress.
After dropping off some packages at the FedEx facility nearby, I spotted an old man sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk in the blazing heat, wearing what looked like a dirty shroud. He’d piled his possessions into paper grocery bags on either side of him. Dozens of pedestrians walked past as he lay there: some looked straight ahead, some chatted noisily on their phones, and some did both.
At that moment three disturbing questions seized me: How long will it take me to become inured to this small but very real tragedy playing out on 111th Street and Broadway? How many homeless people will I have to see before I, too, walk by with total disregard for their tragic situation? What mental and spiritual processes will seduce me into becoming just another passerby, deadened to the pain of a fellow human being?
I’d like to claim that as a moment of enlightenment. But I knew that very soon I’d resemble everyone else dashing past the tragedy of this shroud-clad man, glued to my phone and absorbed in all the “important” things I needed to accomplish. I might as well have put on a shroud of my own.
I’d been in the city no more than two days and already felt myself succumbing to numbness: the forces of unconcern masquerading as deep concern for daily errands. When we close ourselves off to the feelings of other people, so goes our empathy. And empathy, as I often argue, ignites the part of us we most need in order to realize our creative courage.
Here’s something to remember as you read on: Empathy doesn’t necessarily equate to kindness or agreement. It is a faculty, which allows a person to feel the emotions of another. In that regard, empathy is critical for writers, musicians, poets, painters, dancers — anyone who desires to depict something of the human experience.
When an artist comes to his or her work with a rich and overpowering degree of emotion, they will not be easily dissuaded by thoughts of Am I good enough? They will be inspired to simply get down to the task of creating. Among the many successful artists I’ve encountered or worked with over the last forty years, I know some who are absolute jerks, but none who lack a talent for empathy.
When I saw the shroud-clad man lying there, my empathy hadn’t fully deserted me yet. But I did come face-to-face with empathy’s fragility. Making sure it was safe to approach, I left five dollars beside him. I knew it wouldn’t help much, and I didn’t do it for his benefit anyway—just for my own. It was like watching a bulb dim and the world tilt toward darkness—my humanity receding, becoming less dynamic, less vital.
We can and do justify our defenses as we tune out the pain of strangers. I’d even call it a necessary evil because we gain something with our loss of empathy: the ability to move briskly through the day, preserve our hard-earned cash, and meet our own needs. And yes, these things have their importance. Almost all of us lack the fortitude to live the Mother Teresa life. But when we fail to notice our empathy stagnating, something has gone wrong.
As I walked away, I took a photo of the man on my iPhone. Later that day I posted it on Facebook with the following text: You arrive in New York City with your humanity mostly intact. Soon, without your realizing it, the tragedy of poverty no longer affects you. This is no victory.
The comments, some of them, obtuse political screeds about homelessness, shouldn’t have surprised me, but they did. A few people contended that this unfortunate soul was sprawled on that patch of sidewalk because he wanted to be there—that it was simply his choice. To those people, I say: it’s one thing to close off your empathy so you can get on with your life but quite another thing to embrace the absurd, cruel notion that lying on the sidewalk in hundred-degree heat, your worldly possessions in grocery bags strewn about you, is by any measure a conscious choice.
Other people took a different view of my post. One woman wrote that she, too, felt her empathy retreat in the face of abject poverty. She wrote of “empathy education” and said that rather than letting empathy become tangential to schoolwork, we must teach it to very young children as a bedrock skill.
Let’s face it: our hearts will always harden in some way in certain situations. Yours. Mine. Everyone’s. Otherwise, they’d break. But although we need to forgive ourselves when we fall short, we should never rush to protect ourselves by pretending not to notice “the other.” We cannot afford to become closed off to our fellow humans. Doing so closes us off to our own humanity — the place where creativity thrives.
A creative person notices, observes, connects, and embraces the emotions of others. Again, this doesn’t mean creative people are saints. We know from history and from our own experience that this isn’t often the case. But when we open ourselves to others, we open ourselves to life itself. Staying open is a tall order, although if we want to heighten our creative courage, we must remain open to everything—the pleasant, the painful, the awesome, and the mundane.
Opening up to the minutest details of any given thing or experience reveals it in crisper focus. When we do that, its significance grows. As the old saying goes, “We only see in others what we see in ourselves.” Like everything associated with creative courage, remaining open to life’s details is a source of powerful inspiration—perhaps no more so than when they ignite potent emotions. And it’s from emotions that we discover, and continually rediscover the essence of our creative selves.