[Author’s note: I wrote this post before the the chaos of COVID-19 was fully upon us, but I think it applies now more than ever. Many of us find ourselves with unprecedented amounts of free time and/or alone time and are wondering what to do with ourselves. The temptation may be to dig our heels deeper into our patterns of consumption – binging Netflix and social media, hoarding food and toilet paper, and overdosing on articles about the coronavirus. (I admit, I am falling prey to that last one. And of course I’m not suggesting that we should be ignorant, in denial, or uninformed; just that we should be mindful of how much media content we are consuming.) But I wonder if a healthier response might be to take advantage of this slower-paced life by leaning into our creative impulses and considering what we might have to offer in this season, rather than focusing solely on what we can consume. What gifts do we have to give? What beauty do we have to share? What hope and peace might we gain access to if we quiet ourselves in the midst of the chaos and let our creativity rise to the surface?]
You know that feeling when inspiration strikes and creativity flows through you like a bolt of lightning? Growing up we had an “art cabinet” that became the dumping ground for all kinds of random crap. Crayons, markers, paint – yes, but also anything we didn’t have another place for. Box of rocks? Put it in the art cabinet. Feathers? Art cabinet. Old shoelace? Throw it in there. To me, the possibilities felt endless. What couldn’t be created with such an array of ingredients? The primary feeling I associate with the art cabinet is the desperate need to run to the bathroom, because whenever I stood in front of it I would be so excited about whatever idea I was hatching up that, like a little puppy, it would make me need to pee.
When was the last time you felt that inspired and excited to create something new?
A lot gets in the way of our creative impulses.
My message in this post is simple: We are happier when we create more than we consume. We are happier, and we feel more alive. We feel less depression and anxiety. We feel more connected with ourselves and with those around us, and with God.
There is no downside to creating more and consuming less, though that doesn’t mean it is easy to make this change. Much conspires against our movement away from Consumerism and towards Creativity. Addiction, compulsion, and advertising are all minions of Consumption, and they are powerful forces. This doesn’t mean they can’t be confronted and conquered, but it does mean that freedom will not be won accidentally. It is something that must be fought for, at least in the beginning.
Let me distinguish at this point between “consuming,” the action, and “Consumerism,” the lifestyle. “Consuming” is a natural part of existence. As humans, we need to consume a certain amount of air, water, and nutrients to flourish. We also do much better in environments where we have people and ideas to interact with, and these interactions can involve certain elements of “consuming.” When we have conversations, we are taking in information from another person. When we observe the world around us, we are taking in sensory data. When we read a book or a newspaper, we are taking in stories and ideas. And all these things are good and right and healthy, so long as they are not taken to extreme excess.
Think about how you feel at the end of a day where you had to do a lot of listening, and never had an opportunity to express your own thoughts and feelings. Or if you’ve ever taken a solo trip where you witnessed beautiful landscapes, but didn’t have an outlet to process and share what you experienced. Similarly, how does it feel when you eat a big meal and aren’t able to go to the bathroom for a couple days? Or just imagine what it would be like to breathe in all day, without being allowed to breathe out. These are all examples of ways that the healthy and normal act of “consuming” can get out of balance and become unhealthy. “Consumerism” is a lifestyle characterized by unhealthy, excess consumption.
So how do we keep our “consuming” in balance with expression and creativity? I’m going to offer a few exercises you can try (see below), but first let me explain what I mean by “creativity.”
When I talk about creativity, I’m not necessarily talking about creating a work of art. In fact, thinking of creativity in this way will probably hinder you from creative pursuits. For my purposes, let’s distinguish between “Creation,” which has a clear end product, and “creativity,” which is an ongoing activity with no clear end point. “Creation” is more like running a marathon – at the end you can say, “I ran 26.2 miles.” “Creativity” is more like playing tag in the park with your friends. At the end you might say, “I had fun with my friends today,” but you won’t say, “I ran X number of miles,” because that really wasn’t the point.
Examples of Creation:
- Writing a novel
- Painting a portrait
- Choreographing a dance
- Making a film
Examples of creativity:
- A thought-provoking dialogue with a friend
- Playing an instrument by ear
To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with creating an end product (e.g. a novel, or a portrait), but know that the end product is not necessary to reap the benefits of creative activity. Both categories of creating “count” when it comes to cultivating habits that counter consumption.
The Relationship Between Creativity and Consumption
Let me give an example of how consumption and creativity can work together. Let’s say you play guitar, and you want to write a song. The problem is, you’ve gotten into a rut where you keep using the same 4 chords that you’re most comfortable with. One way to energize your song-writing is to learn 2 or 3 new chords. Learning these chords is an act of consumption, because you are taking in new information. But if, after taking in the information, you challenge yourself to play around with these new chords and to incorporate them into a new chord progression, you’ve now crossed over into creativity. Note that the “new chord progression” doesn’t need to be something completely original that the world has never heard before. That would be extremely unlikely, and probably impossible. But if it’s new for you, and your particular expression of that progression is unique to you, then you are creating.
In summary, I define creativity like this: I am engaging in creative activity any time I give external expression to internal ideas.
And consumption: I am engaging in consumption any time I take in something from the external world.
As you can see, none of the above activities are inherently “good” or “bad.” They are all things that work best when kept in balance with one another.
And in fact, all the activities in the right-hand column will be enhanced and enriched when they are integrated with those in the left-hand column. The best writers are good readers. Listening well gives us the wisdom to speak. How can someone be a good cook without experiencing (= consuming) the flavors and aromas of their meal along the way?
The consuming activities that we want to be wary of are the ones that don’t have a natural, reciprocal creative activity. For example, what is the natural creative outflow of watching a movie or browsing social media? It’s not that we can’t “give external expression to our internal ideas” after engaging in these activities, it’s that we generally don’t.
But what if we made a practice of dialoguing with friends after watching a movie together, processing our thoughts and feelings in a journal after being on social media, writing a song after attending an inspiring concert, or speaking out words of gratitude after consuming a meal? What difference would this make for us? How might it slow us down and tune us in to our internal lives? How might it connect us more deeply to the people around us? What if a commitment to balancing creativity and consumption is all that’s needed to free us from the entangling ropes of addiction, disconnection, and despair? What if, by taking on these simple practices, we were able to access and express the unique gifts we were meant to share with the world?
- When you think about “consuming less,” what gets stirred up in you? What emotions are you present to? What thoughts come to mind? What ideas do you have about what this might look like?
- When you think about “creating more,” what gets stirred up in you? What emotions are you present to? What thoughts come to mind? What ideas do you have about what this might look like?
- What unique opportunities are available to you right now as a result of coronavirus-related lifestyle adjustments? What are some activities/projects that you’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t had time for? How might you use this season to leverage your creative potential?
- What is one concrete thing you can do this week to help balance your consumption and creativity? (See the exercises below if you need some ideas!)
- “Recognize when you’re ‘full'” – This is a simple practice to help you grow in awareness, and can be used any time you are about to consume something. (Remember to use the broad definition of consumption – “anytime you take anything in from the external world.” Obviously, I’m not talking about breathing, but just about everything else – reading a book, watching a video clip, listening to the radio, etc.) Before you jump into the activity, pause for a moment, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. Ask yourself, “Do I feel full right now?” If, when you close your eyes and try to slow down, your brain is still pinging trying to process what you’ve consumed already that day, that’s a sign that you are “full” and don’t need to ingest more media content. At that point, you have a couple of options. You can choose to go ahead and consume more anyway. (Hey, it’s a free country!) If you choose this option, I encourage you to pause afterwards and notice the impact in your body and mind. Another option is to choose a “creative” activity instead, e.g. journaling, drawing, processing your day with a friend. A third option, and the one that I often choose, is to set a timer for 10-20 minutes and just be still, eyes closed, breathing deeply. Let your thoughts do what they need to do in order to leave you in peace for the night. This is a great pre-bedtime activity, and can be exercised as a form of Examen.
- “Find the balance” – The idea here is to try to maintain a 1:1 (ish) ratio of consuming to creating. Want to spend an hour on your phone or watching Netflix? Great, just be sure to set aside another hour to do something creative. If you don’t have that much free time in your day, then split the original hour in half, and spend 30 min. on each activity. If possible, do the creative activity first, and you might find that you’re enjoying yourself so much that you prefer to continue with that instead of switching gears.
- “Active consumption” – In this exercise, your consumption serves to inspire your creativity. I call this “active consumption,” because it asks us to actively engage with the content we’re consuming. (As opposed to “passive consumption,” where we consume with no intention of processing or responding to what we take in.) Here’s what it might look like: 1) Watch an episode of a TV show, or a YouTube video, or read a chapter of a book, or listen to a song, and then 2) Do something to engage with the ideas you consumed, e.g. write in a journal, or sketch an image, or compose a melody inspired by what you saw/read/heard. What you create doesn’t need to be a brilliant work of art, it just needs to be a way to process your thoughts and feelings and reflect on what you’ve experienced. In fact, you might not think of it as “creating” at all, if that comes with the expectation that you’ll have some kind of finished final product. Instead, think of writing (or drawing, or composing) as a “creative activity” that is an end in itself. Let “create” be a verb, with no nouns (i.e. achievements) attached.
- “Activity swap” – For 1 week, swap out a consuming activity for a creative one. This is a great one for anybody who feels overly busy. Instead of needing to make time for something new, simply identify where you’re spending time engaging in unnecessary consuming activities that don’t give you life, and for one week, swap that activity out for a creativity activity that will give you life. Keep in mind that, if consumption is currently a way you wind down after work, you will want to be intentional about how to still meet that need in a healthy way. Consider ways of winding down that don’t involve media consumption (e.g. taking a nap, being still, deep breathing), or that scale back the level of consumption (e.g. listening to music instead of binging Netflix, reading a chapter in a book instead of scrolling endlessly on social media).
- “Cultural Anthropologist” – If you’re not ready to make a change, try this exercise. For one week, simply take note of your current practices. What are your current habits of consumption? When does it happen? And for how long? How do you feel afterwards? Where are you already engaging in creative activities? Where are you processing your thoughts/feelings, or responding to content you take in? As much as possible, try to ask these questions without judgment. Think of yourself as a scientist observing data to see what can be learned.