The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here . . .”
These words feel ironic, unintentional as they may be, for they are immortalized with two hundred and sixty others in a speech delivered by Abraham Lincoln now known as the Gettysburg Address. Though the war would officially end roughly a year and a half later, this oration was delivered a few months after the bloodiest battle of the bloodiest war in America’s short history. Yet, amidst this great struggle, under the worst possible circumstances, one of the greatest speeches in American history was penned.
It is easy to envision the act of creation only happening under the artist’s ideal situation. For me it would be snowing at my go-to coffee shop with my favorite music on in the background, not too busy, nor too hushed either, so I can sit at my spot and still feel connected to the world. But that place is hundreds of miles away and God created seasons.
The reality is that often when we paint, compose, sing, and write, it is often under less-than-perfect circumstances and frequently under terrible ones. We create because we are human, and we create in darkness because so often we have no other choice. But counterintuitively, in the midst of darkness, the spark of creativity shines even brighter.
Now, it’s easy to want to build, write, paint, and design when the rhythm is soothing and conditions are ideal, but there is a near ineffable quality which allows us to push through the other times to accomplish these things too. Even small acts of rebellion against darkness are signs of hope: writing in a journal, sketching ideas, and starting that project we’ve been putting off for months. What is birthed in pain is not necessarily better ipso facto, but it is a sign of hope. By creating, we are able to hold on to some of our humanness through suffering and pain.
Consider then, the piece composed by Oliver Messiaen, “Quartet for the End of Time.” The song was written in a German camp for prisoners of war, and The New Yorker described it as “the most ethereally beautiful music of the twentieth century.” It was scratched together and debuted in 1941, enrapturing everyone who listened.
Think of the spirituals sung under the cruel oversight of slave masters. Reflect on the poetry which David orchestrated while being hunted by King Saul. Listen to the work of the a teenager down the street whose parents are divorcing, yet still records their thoughts in iambic pentameter.
Stories like these are innumerable.
The ability to create is not epiphenomenal; it does not merely add something else to our existence, but it is an embedded part of it. When the darkness comes, we continue to create, not just as a means of escape, but also as a means of survival, and at times, a means of hope. When the veneer of presentation is stripped away we can see these qualities shine through. So when we look to books like the Bible, we see this: Israel’s songs of lament are made in exile. As Stephen was being stoned, he called for his attackers’ forgiveness. And God created the world out of nothing. Out of darkness came light.
Cover image by Руслан Гамзалиев.