On the death of creativity

I started seeing a counselor (therapist, or whatever) just before Christmas in 2015. Not because I was feeling depressed. I decided to go because I was stuck. I needed an objective sounding board to help me sort through the endless streaming thoughts flying around in my head. We went through the usual “get to know me” template that each counselor uses (or at least should use). That process was helpful because it allowed me to be completely honest with myself, out loud, without fear of judgement, about who I am and how I view the world.

After two sessions of self-revelation I was already starting to feel better. The third session though, was when the meat really fell into the grinder. “What do you enjoy most?” my counselor asked.

Immediately, and very unexpectedly, I burst into tears. Through the sobs I managed to get out, “My garden”. There are multiple reasons why this is actually funny. First, last summer was the first year I’d managed a full vegetable garden through a full season. While I’d worked in gardens before, this was the first one that was really “mine”. It was strange to feel so attached to something that otherwise could be considered very menial.

Second, while I was sobbing, I was laughing because I couldn’t figure out why I was sobbing. My counselor laughed with me, which only made me laugh harder. How silly, to be so emotional over a garden? But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. It was mine. I watered it, weeded the beds, harvested the vegetables and eventually pulled out the dead vines.

More importantly, working in the garden gave me pause. I could take time to think, or not. To talk to the plants and animals around me. To benefit from the food I harvested from my own labor. To breathe the air around me and be perfectly immersed in my private corner of the earth. It was so therapeutic. I left that counseling session feeling as if a boulder had been lifted off my shoulders. Not because I’d set down some massive burden, or guilt I’d been carrying. Because I was finally giving myself permission to take time for me.

Later that day and a few days after I kept thinking about time to myself. For some reason my mind kept wandering to some of the places I’d visited with my wife in Paris, France a few years ago. We went to the homes of several artists and writers. In most of those locations there were plaques that described each creator’s lifestyle, including daily routines. What stuck out to me was the amount of time each of them spent NOT doing what they would eventually be most famous for.

More often than not their days were spent writing correspondence, working in gardens, spending time with friends or relaxing in parks. There were long stretches of what we would now identify as relaxing, with short bursts of productivity on their respective art form. These famous creators lived in the worlds they wrote about and painted. They experienced their worlds as much as they could, allowing the natural inspiration to build, only to be released in spurts of creativity.

It occurred to me how stifling our lifestyle is. We spend hours behind desks in cubicles grinding away at jobs most of us don’t want because we’ve been conditioned to believe that is what we need to do in order to be successful. Many times we’re told we need to “think outside the box” in order to derive the “next big thing”. I find it incredibly difficult to think that’s possible without any sort of mental break.

I’d wager a lot of us are working in environments where we’re often asked to do more with less. We’re asked to spend the extra hours away from our families, to…what, provide for our families? And if we conscientiously object to this ludicrous lifestyle we’re lazy? Because we want to do things that make us happy and provide us opportunity to be active members of our families?

I have very “successful” friends and family members. I watch them work endlessly to reach that ever-out-of-reach status where they can finally step back and announce to the world, ‘I’ve made it!’ But when I look closer the truth begins to seep through the cracks of their perfectly established homes. They don’t have children, they barely see their spouse, they spend an awful lot of time in the gym, and they’re up until all hours of the night. Ultimately, I know they’re not satiated because they’re always driving for something else. A new boat, a new car, a vacation home.

Now, I’m not trying to downplay the drive to succeed because I do believe there are valid examples of said drive that have directly benefited the world over. But I do think there is a very fine line between wanting to be perceived as an innovator, and not caring enough to actually become one.

What is it that we’ve decided is so much more important than our own passions? Why have we allowed our schools to become factories for like-minded thinkers incapable of ever creating their own mold? Why do we put limits on our own capacity to learn? To try something new? Why do we have to do the same thing for our entire life? Why are we actively destroying creativity?

I can’t say that I have the answers to any of these questions. From a historical perspective it’s easy to highlight the events that turned us down this dead-end path. For the life of me I can’t figure out why we’re satisfied running toward the cliff at a break-neck pace as if we’re a herd of lemmings. Even more so, I can’t figure out why we’re okay with other people making the decision for us, driving us to the edge while we smile and laugh.

To me, gardening is my break from the chaotic false life that’s been built up around me. Rather, that I’ve allowed to be built up around me. I celebrate it with tears and laughter! It’s my slow pull away from the herd. As cliche as it may sound, as long as I have a roof over my head, food to eat, good friends and my wife and son, I don’t really require much more. I’d rather spend time experiencing the world around me, like those laissez-faire creators, sharing those experiences through writing. It sure as hell beats the alternative.

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