Change a Mood, Not a Mind

As an artist I’ve attempted to make a career out of trying to make the world a more beautiful place. I understand that beauty is quite subjective, but my overarching goal is to treat the planet, and humanity, like I’m on a multi-decade hike—to leave the place better than I found it. It turns out that that is a more complicated task than I ever thought it would be.

I would describe myself as a Highly Sensitive Person. Highly Sensitive Person (or HSP) is a term psychologists use to describe about 15% of the general population, but that percentage is much higher among creatives. Science has shown that this extra-sensitive way of seeing the world is hard-wired into our DNA. HSPs are easily overwhelmed and often reclusive which can give us a negative rap. While there are some downsides, the extra sensitivity also allows us to see and hear things others don’t, which in turn gives us a larger capacity for empathy, compassion, and wild imagination. 

Being an HSP at this time is challenging. I don’t require a lot of face-to-face time, but I need the energy of my community to maintain hope so I can continue to move forward. The ability to imagine myself in another person’s place, or see things from their perspective, has made equality a defining structure in my emotional landscape. I believe everyone should get the same respect, opportunity, and resources, but figuring out how to facilitate that means breaking down social biases and cultural constructs. It means rethinking how I interact with my neighbours and my kids. It means re-evaluating what kind of art I make and why. It’s hard, hard work. 

One challenge is that equality is difficult to measure. Does it mean everyone gets the same opportunity, or does it mean everyone gets an equal opportunity? Pure equality can lack justice. Do we send all our Olympic and Paralympic athletes to the same sporting event? That would be equality, but it wouldn’t be fair. Equity means creating systems that give each person the ability to rise to their potential. Equity means supporting those who need extra help so they can access a similar opportunity. It means creating space for those who start at a disadvantage due to factors out of their own control. Creating those systems requires all of us to live with empathy and compassion. This is why we need our creatives—so our HSPs can continue to help us navigate our way into an equitable future. 

Perhaps I’m dealing with a middling bout of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but this is a hard stretch of winter for me. Everywhere I look there is a problem that needs help fixing, or a need that begs for filling. I am missing all the normals like everyone else in this strange era. My creative friends and our work have been impacted in ways that are feeling more and more permanent. My studio wall is covered with motivational quotes and pep-talk generator memes. I’m just trying to find my way to a little hope so I can get back to doing what I love: making art that brings joy. 

There are times I wish I had a big truck to park somewhere, something that would drive my point home more firmly than the gentle lullaby of beauty and creativity. And yet, isn’t listening and compassion the things we need more than anything right now? My mom used to always say ‘Change a mood, not a mind.’ Great parenting advice, and it’s just as relevant to our cultural dialogues: we are much more amenable to change when we are in the right mood. How can we change the mood of this time so more people can feel heard? How can we learn to stop holding each other ransom at each end of the spectrum with belligerent actions and snide remarks? Maybe it’s time for all of us to get in touch with our inner HSP and dig into the empathy that insight provides. 

As poet Emma Lazarus says, ‘Until we all are free, none of us are free.’ But true freedom cannot be legislated—it is given to you by your neighbour when they respect you and allow you to be who you are. True freedom requires equity and true equity requires community and true community requires compassion and true compassion requires listening and listening requires humility. That’s the kind of freedom  you can only find around a campfire, or shovelling your neighbour’s sidewalk, or plein-air painting with friends.