First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Getting Unstuck: Creativity and Spirituality

April 7, 2013
Rev. Sandra Fees

If you’ve ever gotten your car stuck in mud, you know that getting it unstuck can be a little tricky. Our first instinct is to try harder, to press on the accelerator, which makes matters worse, causing the wheels to spin and the car to sink deeper and deeper.

Matters of the heart, mind, and spirit are similar. We can actually become the most deeply entrenched when we are trying most desperately to get away from something. Our discomfort escalates. Things begin to feel immovable, entrenched, and hopeless. The more we try to let go of a resentment or disappointment, the repetitive dynamic with a boss or coworker, our negative habitual interactions with a parent or child, or outmoded ways of thinking the more we can get hooked. And the less and less creative we may become.

As the spiritual writer Anne Lamott says of letting go, “Of course, I’ve always said that every single thing I’ve let go of has claw marks on it.” Most of us can relate to that too well. Getting ourselves unstuck requires something a little different from brute strength or sheer will and determination. It requires creativity and good problem-solving skills.

Studies are showing that even as IQ scores in this country are going up, creativity scores are going down. These drops occur in children sometime between kindergarten and sixth grade. By middle school, children are overwhelmed by learning complex information and having to meet standard grade requirements. This allows little time for them to think creatively. (ParentFurther.com)

By the time we reach adulthood, we may no longer consider ourselves creative, if we ever did, or make creativity a priority. All too often we learn to consider creativity the purview of a select few artists, writers, and musicians who exhibit the extraordinary– the Pete Seegers, e.e. cummings, and Frank Lloyd Wrights of the world. Do you know what else they have in common? They were Unitarian Universalists.

We may no longer give ourselves permission or much time to tap into the world of playful imagination. Alec Foege, writing about the inventors and tinkerers who made America great, blames our lack of creativity on the way our country is driven by greed and conformity. As corporations become bigger and more efficient, he says, they “conspire to control the outlets of innovation,” snuffing human creativity and brilliance in the process.

Freelance writer Debbie Ellison who co-founded a website called “soaring creativity” describes the suppression of creativity as societal brain washing. There’s enormous cultural pressure to conform and to fit in. Conformity does not cultivate human ingenuity or spiritual growth. Scholar and educator Dr. Yong Zhau sees this as the phenomenon of demanding that everyone be the same. The pressure to conform is what gets us caught up in wondering what other people will think of us if we look or behave differently – at least too differently.

If we strive to express ourselves authentically and learn to be ourselves, we may worry about whether we will be accepted or rejected. How will our families and friends react to us when we refuse to be the same? All too often we see what happens to those who either refuse or are unable to conform. This can result being bullied or ostracized.

When I was young, my mother who was a great seamstress made some of my clothes. But at some point, I wanted store bought clothes that looked like what my friends were wearing. My father would ask, “why do you need that?” When I would say, “all my friends have it” his response would invariably be, “Why do you want to be like everyone else?” Fortunately my mother was more sympathetic to my plight. And certainly there’s a tension between our need to fit in and the importance of being ourselves. My father challenged me with an important and formative philosophy of non-conforming even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I did later. I have found if I want to learn to be myself and have the courage of my own convictions, if I want to express who I am, I have to be willing to sometimes be different from everyone else. This can be quite scary and also liberating.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I find plenty of opportunities to push the boundaries of conformity theologically speaking and in terms of social concerns. Being a liberal religious person in a not-so-liberal world often places me outside the mainstream. This isn’t exactly what my father meant when he asked “why do you want to be like everyone else?” but his own ability not to overemphasize other people’s opinions of him has been helpful to me, what he would call “food for thought.”

Our creativity is also suppressed when we listen to the people who tell us “you can’t do that.” Many dreams and hopes are dashed by others who not only don’t encourage our wild imaginings, our inner spirits, but actually shoot down our ideas and ways of being.

Status quo thinking is another culprit. It causes us to internalize the attitude that: “that’s the way it’s supposed to be because that’s the way it’s always been.” Spiritual communities can start to believe that if the cups have always been stacked a certain way, the walls have always been a certain color,  the choir has always sat in a particular place or that we don’t have religious education classes for children in the summer that: “that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” We are in the beginning stages of envisioning improvements to our sanctuary. The team that’s coordinating this effort is challenging itself not to get stuck in thinking that “that’s the way it’s supposed to be because that’s the way it’s always been.” A society can get stuck in this thinking too. It can come to believe that because marriage has long been between a man and a woman that: “that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Related to status quo thinking is following the rules. Sometimes we have to color outside the lines. Rosa Parks was supposed to sit in the back of the bus. Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax because he was an abolitionist and he ended up in jail. (soaringcreativity.com) On the other hand, don’t run a red light on the way home from church and tell the officer it was your minister’s fault. I’m of course talking about acts of conscience and individual expression.

There are many creativity killers. Interestingly, individuals who are highly creative exhibit a very particular and quite different set of traits. These include:

  • The ability to embrace ambiguity and chaos
  • High motivation despite obstacles
  • Connectedness
  • Courage
  • Curiosity and thirst for knowledge
  • High energy
  • Imagination
  • Highly intuitive
  • Nonconformist
  • Passionate
  • Perceive the world differently
  • See possibility with an open mind and heart
  • Self-actualizing
  • Positive attitude
  • Risk-taker
  • Sense of humor
  • Vision
  • Being fully present
  • Childlike playfulness

I noticed something interesting about these traits. Most of the items on this list are things I would describe as religious values or spiritual concepts. And many of them are key aspects of Unitarian Universalism. Many of them are qualities we try to nurture in our community here. These are qualities we identify as being part of a rich spiritual life, and qualities that contribute to the betterment of our relationships and the well-being of the world.

In fact, most cultures recognize a correlation between creativity and spirituality. Julia Cameron, a name I’m sure is familiar to many of you, who wrote the now famous book, The Artist’s Way, says:

Creativity is a spiritual force. The force that drives the green fuse through the flower, as Dylan Thomas defined his idea of the life force, is the same urge that drives us toward creation. There is a central will to create that is part of our human heritage and potential. Because creation is always an act of faith, and faith is a spiritual issue, so is creativity. As we strive for our highest selves, our spiritual selves, we cannot help but be more aware, more proactive, and more creative.

As Dorothy Boroush wrote in our sermon reading:

[Divinity] comes to me when I am most creative,

when I am thinking things and doing things

that reach beyond myself

– not knowing,

Only hoping, dreaming –

wanting revelations to connect,

support and nourish.

One of the best ways I have found to get in touch with this creative spirit – to think and do things that reach beyond myself - is through tinkering. We need to spend more time tinkering with things. We need to spend more time playing around with ideas and objects, with allowing ourselves to fiddle with things without knowing the exact result, getting in touch with hopes and dreams, and allowing ourselves to be nourished in the process.

My mother always described my grandfather Avery Kanode, her father, as a tinkerer. He liked to go out to his workshop and fiddle around. He made things with his hands from wood. I have a small butterfly shelf he made. He just enjoyed doing these things without any sense of real purpose. He made things but it didn’t matter what he made. It was a hobby, you could say, but also a kind of meditation, a way of being present to the moment. It was a time to play and explore, and to be curious. Just watch what children do with blocks, musical toys, or a box of crayons. They are great tinkerers.

That word “tinker” isn’t used a lot today. Today it’s considered a quaint past-time for retirees and people with too much time on their hands, and the term has largely fallen out of use. Yet Alec Foege, author of “The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great,” describes tinkering as a time-honored American tradition and one we could use more of. American tinkerers were an “eclectic bunch” who, he says, “hatched extraordinary life-changing innovations.”

They were people like Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Morse, Charles Goodyear, Thomas Edison, and the Wright Brothers. There are some modern day tinkerers too. These are people like Jeff Bezos, the e-commerce entrepreneur who founded Amazon. Bezos has been quoted as saying: “Innovation is disruption.” He certainly ought to know. Innovation disrupts our regular way of doing things, our entrenched patterns. It is a place where the spirit, the breath of life, that which animates our lives, can surge up.

The truth is we all have something of that creative spirit – of the tinkerer - in us. We may not be exercising it as much as we could be or as much as we would like.  We may not give ourselves enough space to allow the divine to enter through our creativity. We may not give ourselves enough credit for having the creative impulse in the first place.

So I encourage and invite each of you to give some thought to the ways you are already creative in your everyday lives. Notice the small and large ways you already innovate. Is it in the way you dress, the way you think, the way you arrange your home, the imagination you bring to the workplace, the way you raise your children, the way you solve certain kinds of problems? How does your creativity connect you to something beyond yourself, to something of beauty and wonder?

Take some time each day to savor your own imagination and even cultivate it further. Dance, sing, write, play with your kids, tell stories and jokes, take something apart and use it to make something else. Take time to give thanks for your creativity. It is, as David O. Rankin says “a “marvelous gift.”

May it be so. Amen. Blessed be.