Powers of Two: The Creative and Healing Energy of a Pair


powers of twoOne autumn morning in 2005, I dropped my kids off at preschool and immediately broke down in tears.

Pushing an empty double stroller down a few houses to avoid the other preschool moms, I dialed up the number of my writing (and life) mentor and dear friend, Mike Leach.

I stayed there, on the sidewalk, as he talked me through this panic attack as he had so many others.

Mike was in the middle of the book “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness” by Joshua Wolf Shenk. He told me all about it, how Lincoln was suicidal at a point in his life, and how relied on humor, friends, and a purpose to channel his depression into a greater cause.

I’ll always remember that conversation, because I was completely out of hope at that point, just out of the hospital and wondering if I ever would get my appetite back again, or if that horrible knot in my stomach was here for good. Mike’s words—and the description of Lincoln’s journey—made me feel less pathetic for melting down two houses away from preschool.

A few months later, as I sat in the waiting room of Johns Hopkins Mood Disorder Clinic, I picked up a copy of the Spring 2006 Depression & Anxiety that featured an interview with Shenk on his book. That was a few minutes before my consultation that would result in being hospitalized again. But Shenk’s words, again, stayed with me during those days.

I wrote to Shenk a) because I am one of those stalker types that writes the authors of books I like and b) I wanted him to know much his book meant to me – that its wisdom appeared to me at such a critical time in my recovery. We started corresponding, and when I was in New York, I got to meet him for coffee.

He has just written another fascinating book, “Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs,” in which he explores the “electrified space” of a partnership.

Trust me, this matters to mental health.

Shenk draws on new scientific research—including different families of psychology–that questions the overwhelming focus on the experience of the individual. It’s time to update Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and implement what we know about human connection, including social psychology, relationship studies, and group creativity. Moreover, we need to acknowledge the creative power—and I would add the healing power—in a pair.

Shenk explains how the synergy of a pair is much greater than the sum of two parts. He studied the creative pairs that intrigued him: the Beatles’ John Lennon and Paul McCartney; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who created Apple Computer; Marie and Pierre Curie, who discovered radioactivity; civil rights leaders Ralph David Abernathy and Martin Luther King; comedians Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. He writes:

The pair is the primary creative unit. In his study of creative circles ranging from the French impressionists to the founders of psychoanalysis, the sociologist Michael Farrell discovered that groups created a sense of community, purpose, and audience but that the truly important work ended up happening in pairs, as with Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Fliess.

Like his research on Lincoln, Shenk had a personal interest with this topic. “I wanted to understand the quality of connection whose presence accounted for the best times of my life,” he writes, “and whose absence made for the worst.” He experienced this kind of chemistry with Eamon Dolan, editor of “Lincoln’s Melancholy.”

This got me thinking about the creative partnerships I’ve had over the course of my life and their role in my mental health. That electricity sparked in the process of creating something meaningful with a partner did serve as a natural antidepressant and produced a joy and satisfaction at various points in my life.

There was wonderful synergy between Mike Leach and myself as we compiled a book that became a national bestseller, “I Like Being Catholic: Treasured Traditions, Rituals, and Stories.” I have fond memories of taking the train up to Connecticut with letters in my hand from Martin Sheen and Yogi Berra on why they like being Catholic. We would sit down at his kitchen table organizing the chapters, and it felt as though we were creating weather—wind, lightening, rain, sunshine—from the collective energy of two minds. Our creative partnership was so powerful that it began to seep into the other parts of our lives. We gave a few talks together, and in one, Mike announced to the crowd that he had adopted me as his daughter since my dad passed away years earlier.

I cried. So did he. So did everyone.

He became my writing and life mentor, my dear friend and foster father, the person I bug for advice on everything from sentence structure to marriage questions. In fact, I can’t string together three words without hearing his voice in the back of my mind, instructing me on how to make it crisper and cleaner. And I can’t make any important decision in my life without knowing what he would do.

Shenk explains that, unlike in a group or even in a threesome, there is no escaping the hard work in a pair.

Perhaps that’s why twelve-step support groups advocate the sponsor relationship, a way of being held accountable for your sobriety and for the decisions that can dismantle your recovery. And maybe that’s why people like Mother Teresa and Thomas Merton had spiritual advisors who could guide them in their ministries. In the original depression support group I moderated, Group Beyond Blue, on Beliefnet.com, I suggested that people pair up and get buddies or prayer partners. That way someone would know if they become suicidal or started disappearing.

A creative partnership—with a colleague, friend, spouse, or mentor—forces you to evolve in unexpected ways. “Two people can do things together that are better, bolder, and more enduring than what they do alone.,” says Shenk. He compares it to the old kids’ toys where you pull a long serrated pieces of plastic through the guts of a car, and it makes the car go.

In reading about how so many things we care about in this world—art, food, technology, literature, finance, music, comedy—have a dynamic pair at the center of the story, I’m thinking Shenk is right about the power of two. Not only for the purposes of creating, but also to protect health, to ensure sanity, and to provide inspiration.

Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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