Garlic, Anchovies, Anxiety, and Art

Garlic, Anchovies, Anxiety, and Art

I love garlic. Or more accurately, I love cooking with garlic. I don’t like eating it by itself, raw, or cooked. In fact I distinctly dislike it. But when it is added to other ingredients it enhances the flavor and adds a unique and delightful touch to the dish. When used properly garlic makes everything better. The same applies to anchovies. The small fillets packed in oil have a pungent odor and a taste that must be “acquired,” something I have yet to fully accomplish. But like garlic, when used in measured amounts with other ingredients they add another dimension to the flavor without imposing their own. Three or four finely chopped fillets added early in the process of making tomato sauce for “Sunday pasta” enriches the sauce without revealing their presence.


Anxiety and worry are a lot like garlic and anchovies. Their value depends on the circumstances and the amount. Anxiety over something we have no control is wasted energy. When it is excessive it can be debilitating and overwhelming, rendering us helpless and unable to function. So much so that it is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting almost 20% of adults, according to leading specialists in anxiety treatment. But in small manageable doses, anxiety can behave like garlic and anchovies, and become a useful and helpful tool.


I’m sure I’m not the only artist to hear the comment, “how relaxing it must be to paint.” When asked about this I am quick to point out that painting is definitely not a relaxing exercise for me. In fact it is usually very stressful, especially as the painting progresses, and I invest more and more of myself in the work. I have a tendency – okay, it is more of an unbreakable habit than a tendency – to put off the more difficult parts of the painting for as long as possible. And when I am forced to confront them, I can count on the presence of palpable anxiety. I have learned that this is not only inevitable, but a welcomed part of the creative process. My best work is always accomplished under the duress of varying degrees of anxiety. Its presence tells me that I am moving forward into unfamiliar places where real creative growth is possible. 


This is the positive side of anxiety. When we are faced with a need to act, a task at hand, or a decision to be made, it can be helpful rather than incapacitating. It sharpens our minds and increases our awareness of all our options and their potential hazards. It helps us determine whether we should be cautious or aggressive. The right amount of anxiety may urge us to go ahead and push at those boundaries, or it may cause us to pause, and discover previously unknown obstacles lying in wait for us. In its own way, anxiety makes us a little bit wiser. It does not promise success, but encourages the effort. It has taught me to appreciate the difference between stress and distress. In measured and controllable amounts, anxiety is my friend. There is little question in my mind that my creative efforts need anxiety as much as my cooking needs garlic and an occasional anchovy.

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