Chaim Potok’s two novels, My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev, follow the struggle of an artist from the Hasidic Jewish community as he seeks to express the art within him without shattering the relationships he has with his family’s community. In the end he is compelled to paint using an image of suffering that shocks and offends his people, and he has to move away. It is this internal struggle that has prompted the emergence of something considered to be a work of great significance by the art community.
The struggle of the artist acting as an incubator for meaningful work is a common theme. A great example of this would be second album syndrome, which is all too common in music. A band has a dream: one day, to be successful. Their early journey is a difficult one, working hard for little reward, playing small venues in out-of-the-way places, making sacrifices for their dreams and living a wide range of human experiences.
Their first album is a great success, and the once cash-strapped band enter a new world, one where they are praised, earn good money, get to play bigger venues, and have a much more comfortable life. They start moving in an exclusive world very different to where they have come from. They will also be a lot busier. But they have a second album contracted in 18 months’ time. The new life they lead – on the road, in more comfortable surroundings – turns out not to be such a good one for inspiring them to write great songs. Besides, they are very busy, and they are surrounded by people saying nice things about them. They end up making a poor second album. If they are lucky, they’ll get away with it and realize where they have gone wrong, and find new inspiration. If they aren’t, they will end up being yet another band who did a great first album and could never reproduce this success.
Is comfort and prosperity all that good for any of us, in terms of our performance? Do we miss the spice of the struggle? I was once at a scientific meeting where one of the participants made a really interesting point: be careful that you don’t achieve your dreams. Have sub-goals, and achieve them, as you work your way towards your dreams. But should you get all the way, what will you have left to aim for?
Often people struggling for money think that earning more money will make them happy. For sure, alleviating the struggle brings pleasure, because poverty can be miserable, and having too little restricts your options and causes you to make bad choices. But once you have enough, having more doesn’t bring the expected happiness, and the itch to accumulate just gets stronger as it is scratched.
Some degree of struggle brings meaning.
This is a narrative that is deeply embedded in the world of fine wine. Give a vine what it needs – adequate water, sunlight, and plenty of nutrients in the soil – and it will grow beautifully but produce only average grapes. The vine needs to struggle, it seems, for it to focus its attention on producing grapes capable of making great wine. How many of the world’s great vineyards have beautiful looking vines? The soils tend to be bony, the vines have to fight to survive and yield interesting grapes. It’s an interesting metaphor for life.