War of Art

By Steven Pressfield

(Black Irish Entertainment, 2012)

Reviewed by Sarah Gould

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Have you ever wanted to lose weight, but couldn’t bring yourself to start the diet because it’s always a “bad time”?  Have you ever wanted to pray more but every time you sat (or knelt) down you got distracted and didn’t pray?  Have you ever wanted to write a book, learn to make wedding cakes, play the violin, or start a lawn mowing business and you didn’t because you were too scared?  Then “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield is for you.  I didn’t know much about this book when I first heard of it, but something prompted me to buy it anyway and I am glad that I did.  This book punched me in the face.  In a good way.

“Resistance”, Pressfield says, “is the most toxic force on the planet.  It’s the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction”.  It’s that invisible, internal, insidious, implacable, impersonal and universal force that prevents us from doing what we were meant to do – our life’s work.  It prevents writers from writing, musicians from playing, chefs from cooking and doctors from practicing medicine.  While it’s hard to define what Resistance is specifically (it takes different forms for different people), Steven Pressfield takes a long hard look at how it generally manifests itself, and shares a good bit of his own experiences in the process.

Confused?   So was I – until Pressfield shared this experience.  Before he started writing this book the voice in his head (i.e. Resistance) told him he was a writer of fiction, not non-fiction, and that he shouldn’t expose the concept of Resistance literally but rather, he should expose it subtly, through storytelling.  Resistance also told him that he shouldn’t seek to instruct, or put himself forward as an expert, as this was vain and egotistical and, in the end, doing so would harm him.  Pressfield says, “What finally convinced me to go ahead was simply that I was so unhappy not going ahead.  I was developing symptoms.  As soon as I sat down and began, I was okay.”

Sound familiar?  Maybe it does because you’ve read C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.  In it, Screwtape, the senior devil, writes the following to Wormwood, the junior devil, about their human patient whom they are trying to draw into darkness:

“The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. […] Let him do anything but act.  No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will.  As one of the humans has said, active habits are strengthened by repetition but passive ones are weakened.  The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.” 

As was the case for Pressfield, acting – doing what he was meant to do when he was meant to do it – was the only thing that made things right again.

Screwtape is chock full of advice for Wormwood in using the world, the flesh and the devil to deceive, confuse, tempt and detach his human patient from God, and in the process, from the core of his patient’s own being.  It didn’t take me long to realize that what Pressfield calls Resistance is just a secular word representing that which keeps us from God: namely, the world, the flesh, the devil and everything in between.  And the thing about Resistance is that it’s (he’s) deadly serious.

“Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable.  Resistance aims to kill.  Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us.  Resistance means business.  When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.” 

There’s echoes of John 10:10 in there:

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

We are waging war against unseen forces, sometimes every hour of every day, in every meaningful and important facet of our lives.

And I got it.  Something resonated deeply.  I could see myself in Pressfield’s anecdotes and examples, most especially when he got to the bits about Resistance and fear.  We’re skittish and nervous, we humans.  Fear is one of our strongest motivators (or de-motivators, as the case may be).  Wars have been started, some of the world’s most atrocious crimes committed and many a soul has abandoned its own particular and unique genius due to fear – because the dark side uses fear to its best advantage wherever it can.

“Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance.  Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.  That’s why we feel so much Resistance.  If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

The thing is, when we know that the devil/resistance works in this way, the gears of combat start churning in the mind and heart.  Even just knowing the enemy’s out there, you immediately begin to size him up.

So buy this book.  Read this book.  Be this book.  Religious or not, man or woman, lawyer or janitor, if you have a creative fingernail in your body, this book is for you.  Because if you don’t do what you were made to do: you don’t live life, you merely tolerate it. You also let down hosts of other people in the world that, knowingly or unknowingly, are depending on you.

“If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself.  You hurt your children.  You hurt me.  You hurt the planet.  You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.  Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor.  It’s a gift to the world and every being in it.  Don’t cheat us of your contribution.  Give us what you’ve got.” 

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