In his recent novel, Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje creates a character named Ananda. Ananda’s wife had been brutally murdered in the civil war in Sri Lanka and Ananda is trying to save himself from insanity and suicide in the face of this. His refuge? His tonic? Art, creativity, building something.
Near the end of the story, Ondaatje has him refurbishing a smashed statue of a Buddha. Ananda deliberately changes the eyes to make them the eyes of a human being, not of a god: “He looked at the eyes that had once belonged to a god. This is what he felt: As an artificer now he did not celebrate the greatness of a faith. But he knew if he did not remain an artificer he would become a demon. The war around him was to do with demons, spectres of retaliation.”
We are either creative or we give ourselves over to some kind of brutality. Become an artist or become a demon. This, it would seem, is our only choice. Is this right?
A good theology of grace, I believe, agrees with that. Why? Because we cannot will ourselves into being good people. We can’t just decide that we will from now on be loving and happy, any more than we can decide never again to be angry, bitter, or jealous. Willpower alone hasn’t got that kind of power. Only an influx into the very marrow of our souls of something that is not anger, bitterness, or jealousy can do that for us. We call this grace. Grace, not willpower, is what ultimately empowers us to live loving lives. Creativity, both in what it spawns within the artist and the artifact, can be a vital source of that grace.
But is this true? Are artists and creative persons less violent than others? Do we see any special grace operative there? Generally speaking, yes. Whatever their other faults, rarely are artists war-makers. Why? Because violence despoils the aesthetic order which artists value so much and, more importantly, because creating beauty of any sort helps mellow the spirit, not least inside of the person who is creating it.
Simply put, when we are creative, we get to feel a bit of what God must have felt at the original creation and at the baptism of Jesus, when, looking at the young earth spinning itself out of chaos and the head of Jesus emerging from the waters, there was the spontaneous utterance: “It is good, very good!” “This is my beloved child in whom I am well-pleased.”
Being creative can give us that same feeling. The experience of being creative can help instil in us the gaze of admiration, an appreciative consciousness, a divine satisfaction.
Obviously too there is a real danger in this. Feeling like God is also the greatest narcotic there is, as many artists and performers and athletes, tragically, have learned. In the experience of creativity, it is all too easy to identify with the energy, to feel that we are God or that art and creativity are themselves divine and an end in themselves. The greater the achievement, the harder it is to disconnect properly, to not identify oneself or it with God. Creativity comes fraught with a fierce danger. But, that risk notwithstanding, we need, every one of us, to be creative or else we will, as Ondaatje warns, grow bitter and violent in some way.
However we need to understand creativity correctly. We tend to be intimidated by the word and to see ourselves as not having what it takes to be creative. Why? Because we tend to identify creativity only with outstanding achievement and public recognition. Whom do we judge to be creative? Only those who have had their songs recorded, their poems published, their dances performed on Broadway, their achievements publicly noted, and their talents talked about on the TV talk shows.
But 99% of creativity hasn’t anything to do with that. Creativity is not in the end about public recognition or outstanding achievement. It’s about self-expression, about nurturing something into life, and about the satisfaction this brings with it. Creativity can be as simple (and as wonderful) as gardening, growing flowers, sewing, raising children, baking bread, collecting stamps, keeping a journal, writing secret poems, being a teacher, being cub-scout leader, coaching a team, collecting baseball cards, doing secret dances in the privacy of your own room, fixing old cars, or building a deck off the porch. It doesn’t have to be recognized and you don’t need to get published. You only have to love doing it. William Stafford, the American poet, suggests that we should all write a poem every morning. How is that possible, someone once asked him, we don’t always feel creative? His reply: “Lower your standards!”
“Publish or perish!” God never gave us that dictum. The academic world did. God’s rules for creativity are different. Jesus expressed them in the parable of the talents: “Be an artificer of some sort or you will surely become a demon!”