I usually place empathy at the top of my ladder of desirable religious virtues because I see its presence as the cause of most good and its absence as the cause of most bad. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems that even empathy depends on yet another important quality: creativity.
After all, empathy requires imagination—more specifically the ability to imagine what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes. Among the ways atonement can be understood, the most helpful to me is as the supreme act of creative imagination: for while most of us probably only fully empathize with others when we’ve been through an experience very much like their own, an atoning Christ was somehow able to put himself fully in the shoes of even the most miserable creature simply by imagining himself there.
A good reason to foster the Arts (which Kent urged in several posts some time ago) is to help us all develop our own creative imaginations, stretching them into more at-oning shape. Through literature and film and painting and history we often are presented a chance to understand vicariously what it might feel like to be this person or that, or to be in this situation or that. Most of the time, again, vicarious experience isn’t enough for us, but maybe with enough practice it can come to be.
Of course creativity extends beyond the Arts, and beyond empathy, to touch just about every rung on the ladder of virtues. Yet the crucial role of creativity is not usually at the forefront of discussions about spirituality.
In fact we sometimes speak of creativity as if it’s optional, something nice to have but not required. Or we speak of it stereotypically, as something reserved for people in the Arts, or young children, or women, or gay men. Yet as Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, among others, has shown, creativity not only can be brought to even the most mundane activity, but ultimately determines the shape and meaning and benefit of any activity.
It’s not always easy to spot creativity. The nature of the task doesn’t guarantee it: a mechanic can be highly creative while a violinist can be highly mechanical.
The social psychologist Erich Fromm suggested, in his book Escape from Freedom, that the tell-tale mark of creativity is originality. But that doesn’t make creativity much easier to spot, because we spend so much effort avoiding originality, “escaping” it.
He explained: though we react strongly, even violently, when someone tries to take our freedom, we are often terrified once we have it, because it means we, not someone else, must choose. This realization often causes us to hand over our freedom (and thus creativity) to someone else.
This handing over brings some relief to the burdens of uncertainty and responsibility, but it also reduces or eliminates our originality, which to Fromm was the key to becoming a fully developed human.
By originality Fromm did not necessarily mean that we have to create something absolutely unique to us. Rather, he meant that an idea, shared or not with others, must feel original within us. We might learn about an idea from another source, but we develop that idea in such a way that it comes to be part of us, and, crucially, we take that idea and shape it in our particular fashion.
It’s not any easier to be original than it is to spot originality. A recent NPR segment featured a psychologist whose research argues that the vast majority of the decisions we make are subconscious or unconscious. In other words, not very original or creative.
On the one hand, this keeps our brains from being overloaded: by deciding as others have already decided, or as we’ve unconsciously decided in the past, we avoid angst at every turn. But on the other hand it means that we’re mostly not deciding consciously. Someone else, something else, is deciding for us.
Unconscious decision-making might be fine in certain situations, such as when we have to quickly act or react physically. But according to John Sanford’s The Kingdom Within the key to spiritual growth and adulthood is choosing consciously. For the more conscious we are, the more freely we have chosen and the more we have taken responsibility for our choices. If others choose for us, then they are essentially responsible for our decisions.
Again, there is a certain comfort in this, but a certain stunting of growth as well.
The need to choose, the virtue that can come through choosing, is also evident in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, in which a circle of Chinese scholars become so interested in the original Hebrew meaning of a phrase in the Old Testament usually translated as “Thou shalt” that they spend years studying the phrase. And they decide that the “Thou shalt” is in fact better translated as “Thou mayest.”
This of course is the heart of the story: that what makes a human noble is the “Thou mayest.” It’s also what makes us terrified, what makes us want to say, “will someone please just decide for me!” or, yes, simply tell me, “Thou shalt.”
The fundamental role of creativity and choice in spiritual growth is further evident in the Creation story, as one of God’s supreme acts was to impose his particular vision upon chaos.
It’s implied in D&C 58 regarding not being commanded in all things, or in Moses’ lament that he wished all the children of Israel were prophets so that they’d stop running to him for every decision.
It’s suggested in Jesus’ promise to his disciples that they would do even greater works than they had seen him do, a result which mere imitation would not achieve.
It’s suggested by Elder Oaks’ address to Young Adults in May 2005, when in Moses-like fashion he urged those seeking exceptions to his advice not to write him personally but take responsibility for themselves: “As a General Authority, I have the responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules…Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility.”
Originality, creativity, consciousness, responsibility—all go hand in hand. All are crucial to growing to adulthood, to full personhood, to mature spirituality.
If creativity is as important as I’m suggesting, then it also seems important to foster the friendliest possible environment for it, in the Arts and in Life. Some level of creativity can certainly occur in a limited environment, or one that offers simply a binary choice—of choosing to obey or disobey, yes or no, A or B—but an environment that allows and even encourages us to develop our own solutions requires more, and would seem to lead to greater growth.
This is why students learn and grow more from essay exams than from multiple-choice exams, even though they tend to prefer the latter. And this is why, in my view, the progression of life suggested in temple rites begins with the binary choice of obedience or disobedience and culminates with the open-ended choices of full agency.
In other words, if Fromm is right, we’re not so much born with “free agency” as working our whole lives to attain it, and to accept the creativity and responsibility that go with it.
This view may well be the prejudice of someone raised in “free agency” culture. That was the theme of the Mormon culture in which I grew up anyway. In fact it’s the only doctrine I can recall from my childhood. Which tells me that I didn’t listen much, or (surely more likely) that the topic was repeated a lot, just as obedience has been repeated a lot for kids of the past thirty years or so.
The decline of the emphasis on free agency perhaps stemmed from a fear that the doctrine might be misunderstood to sanction all sorts of behavior, or to lead people to thinking there are no consequence for their actions—to be creative in bad ways.
But true creativity doesn’t seek non-conformity or libertinism as its goal, as Emerson’s famous quote is sometimes used to suggest (“whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist”). For being a nonconformist can itself be simply a binary choice, a condition defined by someone or something else rather than from within. Rather (and I think this is what Emerson meant), when we’re all truly creative, some amount of nonconformity is simply inevitable, for we’re all different in some respect.
The myriad elements we have in common with each other, including 99-point-whatever percent of our DNA and a belief in spiritual kinship, should motivate us to get along with each other, and will surely result in our creating some very similar ideas or things. But the most crucial part within us may be that small difference where our deepest originality (and probably greatest non-conformity) lies, which brings us to maturity and enables us to make our particular contribution to life.
Obviously it’s risky to foster creativity. It can manifest itself in awful, even evil ways, too well-known to have to be listed here. But it’s the very riskiness of it, and the conscious acceptance of responsibility for how we exercise our creativity, that allows full growth.