When I sit down to write, I’m assaulted by thoughts. “You have nothing to say,” comes first, coupled with an irresistible urge to check my email — even if I’ve checked it 36 times since breakfast. Next I hear, “You should give up the writer dream and pursue something more suitable — like being a professional chatterbox.” My final thought, before snapping my laptop shut is, “The key to productivity is a hot latte and cinnamon roll from the …” Before the thought completes itself, I’m halfway down the alley.
According to Stephen Pressfield’s book, The War of Art, Resistance is the derailing force we experience when we attempt any potentially good thing — a painting, an article, a marathon or a marriage. It strikes anyone who hopes to move to a higher plane — in relationships, spirituality, academics, creative work or business.
Although Pressfield isn’t explicitly Christian, his ideas resonate with Scripture. He calls Resistance evil because it deters us from our vocations. Even Paul understood this tension: “I can will what is right, but I can not do it” (Romans 8:18).
Living away from our vocations makes us miserable. A friend told me that Resistance played a role in the unraveling of her parents’ lives — her father was a gifted academic, her mother a talented musician. Neither one found a way to use their gifts. They both struggle with depression and her father is an alcoholic.
What would have happened if Hitler had pursued his dream to become an artist? At 18 he took his inheritance and moved to Vienna to attend art school. “Ever seen one of his paintings?” Pressfield writes. “Call it overstatement, but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”
For all of us who are living one life (or even living toward one life — if you’re still in college) but secretly dreaming of another, here are a few steps for combating Resistance:
Many of us plunge into our dreams without anticipating Resistance, but dreaming is so different from doing. Dreaming requires only imagination, but doing requires effort, and an ability to push through unpleasant feelings — like dread, fear or disappointment.
My friend Tanya, a molecular biologist, experiences Resistance each morning when she arrives at the lab. Before the day begins, she’s dogged by the thought that her experiment will fail. She believes that the only way to make that horrible feeling subside is to get something done.
According to C.S. Lewis, this unpleasant experience marks a critical threshold. “It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have gotten married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing.”
When Resistance comes we can take a deep breath, say a quick prayer and keep going. We can remember George MacDonald’s words, “Am I going to do a good thing? Then Father, into your hands, lest the enemy have me now.”
I used to have recurring nightmares. A sleep specialist told me that I could break the cycle by facing the enemy. When I dreamed of being chased by a masked man, I was supposed to stop running, turn around and look him in the eye. To my surprise, I was able to disarm him this way. As soon as I stopped running, the dreams stopped.
The same goes for Resistance — we need to expect it, to name it and to face it. We’re far less likely to capitulate when we recognize the face of our enemy.
As soon as you have a sense of your vocation (and ideally, some confirmation from others) claim it. Start making the mental shift from “I want to be an artist” to “I am an artist” or “I want to be scientist” to “I’m on the path to becoming one.” When you begin to call yourself the thing you hope to be, it becomes easier to do the things real artists or scientists do, like making time to paint each day or dragging yourself to the lab.
If you’re confused about your vocation, keep in mind the words of Frederick Buechner, and look for it at “the intersection of your own deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger.” As you move towards your calling, Resistance may become especially fierce. Moving away from it may have the opposite effect. “If you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Teresa Foundation, and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing … relax. Resistance will give you a free pass,” Pressfield writes.
Once you’ve begun to call yourself the thing you hope to become, expect Resistance, even from professionals in the field. When I was in sixth grade I admitted to a successful author that I hoped to be a writer. He looked at me like I had the chicken pox and needed to be quarantined. “Oh, well, being a writer is very, very, hard.”
I interpreted his statement to mean, “This job is reserved for extraordinarily talented people like myself. Wimpy smelts like you need not apply.”
It’s only been within the last three years that the dream has actually seemed possible, thanks to a couple I met who work full-time as freelance writers and graphic designers. I watched their articles and books evolve and they encouraged me to turn my own ideas into articles and books.
Another friend is training to be a psychologist and works with troubled youth. He often balks at all the phone calls he needs to make to parents, teachers and social service organizations. He breaks the spell by making a single phone call to anyone on the list. Often, he finds himself energized by the conversation and ready to make the next call.
Remember the molecular biologist I mentioned earlier? Russell is her fiancé. He’ll tell you the process of planning a wedding is riddled with Resistance. When they had to finally sit down and prepare 210 invitations, they overcame Resistance by making a party out of the task. Together they worked with friends into the wee hours stamping, addressing and sealing their invitations.
Take Small, Manageable Steps
Mandy is applying for a design job. She called me when she saw the opening and shared her first goal. She was planning to send an email to the design director the next day and wanted me to check-in with her to make sure she did it. Because the task of applying for this job is daunting, it helped to break the project into small steps.
Amy — an artist and mother of two small children — tells me she is training herself to draw for 30 minutes a day. She is not so concerned about the product as she is about the process. Whatever she produces — be it great or mediocre — she feels happy when she can say, “I beat Resistance today.”
In the end, the battle with Resistance is not just about personal achievement or spiritual progress. When we become the people we were designed to be, God uses us to change to the world.
And just in case you were thinking of giving in to your own form of resistance, here’s a kick in the pants, Pressfield- style:
“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,” Pressfield writes. “You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite God Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter further along its path back to God.”
Copyright 2005 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.