October 17, 2019

When The elders Ask You To Sing

When people think of creativity or creative people they usually think of painters and dancers, writers, and actors – people who make things for others to hear or look at. Recently, I’ve started thinking of creativity as something completely different. Take this example: In the mid-seventies there was an American anthropologist studying a remote East African tribe. He’d been observing a ritual that involved music and singing. When the tribal elders asked him to join in he politely refused by saying he didn’t sing. “I don’t sing” is something you hear people say all the time and it’s meaning is straightforward: they just don’t sing.

In the case of this tribe, the idea that someone didn’t sing was literally beyond comprehension.  It wasn’t a language issue. The anthropologist was quite conversant in their particular dialect of Swahili. For them singing was not a choice. It would be akin to saying that you don’t breathe or that your blood doesn’t flow. It’s a very westernized sentiment that relegates “creativity” or creative expression to something outside the range of normal human interaction. Singing occurs in our culture of course, but only at specialized times and in certain environments. Someone singing This Land Is Your Land or In A Gadda Da Vida in a typical workplace would be considered by most people (myself included) to be mentally unbalanced. 

I’ve come to think of creativity less as something sequestered away from normal life, than as the basis of life itself. In the right context even these seemingly mundane activities could and should be considered highly creative: 

Preparing someone’s taxes – as long as the tax preparer remains conscious of the important role he is playing in the life of his client. 

Having a conversation with a friend –as long as it’s engaging and you find yourself laughing or crying or otherwise stimulated. 

Playing with a child – as long as you’re having fun yourself and not simply going through the motions. 

Washing your car – as long as you don’t see it as a chore but see it as a way to preserve a valuable tool. 

Calling your Mother – as long as you remain aware of the closeness of your relationship and aren’t doing it in a perfunctory way. 

Cooking dinner – as long as there’s a sense that it’s an enriching experience and not a burden. 

Each of these activities comes with essentially the same caveat: Be engaged. be consumed by the experience, be mindful. 

So much of my own time is spent in uncreative ways. I’m constantly thinking about what was and what will be (although having said that, there are ways to make even those kinds of thoughts creative.) For example, if one is truly reflecting on the past, that is, in a manner that’s thoughtful and serves to bolster one’s involvement in the present by making amends or fixing mistakes, – there’s creativity. On the other hand, if looking back on the past becomes a depressing process of grieving what’s been lost, there’s a deficit of momentum, a stasis that stands in direct opposition to creativity.

The same can be said of thinking about the future. There’s always a choice between a useful awareness and a static, lifeless way of thinking about the future.

Simply put:  A creative endeavor always makes something happen and fosters some kind of positive growth.  Whether something positive actually accrues from our behavior (or not) is an ideal yardstick for measuring what’s truly creative and what is not. Of course, that yardstick is the most individual thing in the world and no one but us as individuals can accurately determine what those positive results are. 

Over the years I’ve been involved in many activities that one would naturally assume were highly creative but in fact, were the exact opposite. I might be writing a song for example, something we’d all regard as pretty creative compared to say, doing someone’s taxes. But in the instances I’m thinking of, I wasn’t really “engaged” in the process of writing a song at all. I was going through the motions, thinking about what I’d done in the past and what affect and results the song I was purportedly working on might have in the future.  I was everywhere but where I should have been, which is deep inside the moment, in a place where the normal passage of time means nothing. Where hours subdivide to a degree that one hardly notices their passing. But very often, most often perhaps, I’m struggling to be there, struggling to stay inside those moments.

Maybe creativity resides in simply trying to get there. After all, it’s in the attempt itself that we find growth.  Next time a tribal elder asks me to sing along, I know that at very least, I’m gonna give it a try.