Creativity

I’ve been feeling particularly creative lately: I’ve been dusting off old writing projects that have been sitting in folders untouched for years, having ideas for things to write in this blog, and thinking of new poster designs and ways of displaying photographs in my apartment. It’s an exciting feeling, a wonderful embarrassment of riches that’s hard to keep up with.

As great as this is, I can’t help but wish I had the same wealth of ideas in other areas of my life. I’d love, for example, to have good ideas about where I might meet new and interesting people who could bolster my local support system. And, at a time when there’s a lot of uncertainty swirling around my workplace, I wish I had a better sense of what might come next for me in my working life.

While as a culture we tend to think of Creativity primarily in terms of artistic pursuits, it’s areas like these — the rubber-meeting-the-road of real life — where Creativity truly comes into its own. As one of the universal character traits proposed by the VIA Institute, Creativity is defined as a combination of originality and adaptiveness: “A creative individual generates ideas or behaviors that are novel or unusual and these make a positive contribution to the individual’s life or the lives of others.” This means that Creativity is a deeply practical form of intelligence. It’s about finding pathways, multiple new, and improved ways of facing life’s challenges. This is why they categorize Creativity as a Wisdom trait, alongside Judgment, Love of Learning, Perspective, and Curiosity, instead of with Transcendence traits like Appreciation of Beauty and Spirituality.

For Christians (like me), Creativity is rooted in the idea of God as Creator. The intuition that everything that we see is a manifestation of God’s loving and creative Spirit is pervasive in our Scriptures. In the very first chapter, we read of God calling everything into being, shaping structure and order out of the formless, primordial chaos. After God creates the world, God calls it “good.” Later, the Psalmist, lost in wonder at the complexity of God’s creation, will proclaim, “How diverse are your works, O Lord! In Wisdom you have made them all!”

When the focus of the story turns towards humanity, we learn that we were created “in the image and likeness” of God. This means (among other things) that humanity shares with God the inescapable desire to create, to produce something outside of ourselves that is reflective of our spirit, our will, and our wisdom.

Moreover, at least some ancient Christian traditions have understood that the Wisdom of God present in creation was not a once-and-for-all expression of God’s revelation, but an ongoing one — that God’s Spirit continues to guide creation towards its full potential. And once again, this same Spirit works within us. Created in the image and likeness of God, endowed with reason, memory, skill, and a creative spirit, we are not slaves to instinct and impulse, but are made to actively participate in our development, to be co-creators, with God and in God, of our lives and our world.

Thus, as Christians, both halves of the psychological definition of Creativity — the deep desire to create something new and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances — should resonate with our theological hearts and minds. Both are part of the good fruit we are called to produce in our life as we grow in faithfulness and wholeness, and into the people God created us to be.

But what happens when Creativity goes wrong? As I mentioned in the post introducing this series, the framework I’m exploring in these posts understands that the positive traits that make us whole and healthy persons can be pathological in their absence, in their opposite, or in their excess. Each of these is worth exploring.

The absence of Creativity, as we are defining it, is something like “Stuckness,” or perhaps in its extreme, Depression. If I’m honest, I find this disturbingly familiar. The times when I have been at my lowest have been those when I’ve felt helpless and stuck, when I haven’t been able to see ways forward. I remember one such instance a few years ago when the terrifying Automatic Negative Thought running through my head was “I’ve played my last card; I have no more moves to make. This is what my life is.” Of course that was a lie. I still had a full hand and plenty of moves to make. I just wasn’t in a place where I could see them.

The opposite of Creativity is Conformity or Triteness, not an inability but an unwillingness to think of new approaches. I can relate to this too. There have been times when my lack of engagement with new ideas has been less about a lack of ideas than an active desire to conform or follow the rules. Once again, we hit on the power of the status quo, which has come up several times lately.

And, in its pathological exaggeration, Creativity expresses itself as an obsessive need for, or even fetishization of, novelty: novelty for novelty’s sake. While I can’t personally relate to this, I certainly know people this describes well: friends who never want to go to the same restaurant twice, who jump from project to project or from bed to bed because there’s always somewhere, something, or someone newer and more exciting to pursue. Creativity can become pathological — that is it can work against us instead of for us — when the surplus of options and ideas prevents us from committing to doing any one thing: when, in the interest of exploring all possible paths, we never go more than a few feet down any of them. The pathologies of excess fascinate me because they are so clever. They present themselves as bounty even as the fruit they produce is spoiled and rotten. (I’m reminded of one summer when I was gifted with a box full of zucchini. No matter how many soups, salads, and ragouts I made or zucchini cakes I baked, and no matter how much zucchini I froze and gave away, I simply couldn’t keep up!)

Its extreme excesses notwithstanding, Creativity is an important feature of healthy human being in the world, and, as we have seen, an important way we live into the image and likeness of God, according to which we were created. If we find ourselves lacking in this, we can certainly pray about it and trust that the Holy Spirit will built this trait up in us. But there are also practical things we can do to cultivate Creativity. Here are some suggestions:

  • Think of a problem in your life and try to list a whole page of ideas about how you might solve it, no matter how outlandish;
  • Think of a project you’d like to pursue and create a mind map, at least three layers deep to develop your ideas;
  • Think of twenty-five ways of describing a flower;
  • Put pen to paper and write (The ‘Morning Pages’ exercise is a good place to begin; there are also hundreds of web pages out there with writing prompts);
  • Write a daily haiku;
  • Choose a household object and come up with as many ways of using it as you can.

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