Creativity and ... Humility?
by Emily Ruppel
When I was an undergraduate, studying to be a poet, self-promotion was the law. Whether or not you were the next Emily Dickenson or E.E. Cummings and had poetic genius drifting dreamily through your bloodstream, it wasn’t going to do you much good if no one recognized your genius, and you sure weren’t going to get recognized for your genius if nobody knew who you were.
At first, the avenues available for getting our words “out there” were pretty straightforward: Go to conferences and readings; schmooze with editors; get on the local reading circuit; submit everywhere, all the time; annoy your friends and family by urging them to buy your book; repeat, repeat, repeat.
These days, we have personal websites and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and mass texting and a host of other platforms on which to indulge in what always felt to me like a sickness of self-absorption, but which is, perhaps, a necessary evil in the world of the professional writer.
Of course, the law of self-promotion extends beyond writing. Academics, artists, and businesspeople of all stripes are also subject to the law. So, it seems, are people with nothing better to do. These days, the law doesn’t apply merely to the promotion of one’s own work—it extends to one’s entire personality and way of life. The advent of social media has made the sundry details of our daily lives a constant presence on each other’s “walls” and news feeds—they even show up in the sidebars of certain email providers. Knowing this, we feel encouraged to promote our own unique brand of humor through clever quips and one-liners, post perfect-looking pictures of vacations and outings so others can see what we’re up to (and how great it was), post announcements about parties and get-togethers even if these are not open invitation, post rants about the egregiously stultifying nature of going to department meetings, the DMV, taxes, traffic, etc., etc...
Even if you’re not hooked in, you know the score: The stream of content doesn’t stop. It’s all the time, and it’s a lot.
Despite my distaste for professional promotion, I am certainly not exempt from the latter, more pervasive kind—which bothers me, because it’s not even necessary. Social media has become a mild addiction for most of the adults I know (not to mention the potent effect it seems to have on teenagers). Simply post, even when you don’t have much worth posting about, and you’ll receive flattering “likes”—there is no “dislike” button—and comments from friends and family and people you barely know.
Mine has been called the “Me Me Me Generation,” and it’s no surprise. Just follow us on any of the above-mentioned outlets and you’ll be deluged with strangely stilted portraits of how Millennials spend their days. In a world where many of us are medicated into complacency before we reach puberty, it’s not surprising the inch-deep gratification of a passel of likes and shares on Facebook has become the omnipresent social opiate of our time. I, for one, don’t wish to stop exploiting this nostrum anytime soon—like a spike in blood sugar, the reward for one’s involvement rarely doesn’t seem worth its cost in time wasted, narcissism enhanced.
Except when you experience the alternative.
I recently returned from the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation, in Nashville, Tennessee, where hundreds of Christians in the sciences gathered together to talk, worship, and share ideas about God and nature and a thousand subjects in between. It was a time of celebration for the creativity we scientists and science aficionados share with the divinity we worship, a time to come together over breakfast and post-plenary beers to tease out the questions we should be asking about our responsibilities to others and our small yet privileged place in the vast, vast cosmos.
It was a time, as it always is, of reconnecting with our humility, rather than our snowflake-metaphor personal importance.
It’s at ASA meetings that I’m reminded why humility is so essential in the first place—no matter who you are or what your profession. Jesus abhorred a hypocrite, and it is hard to find one among people so ardently dedicated to the truth that they’re constantly thanking each other for the stern criticisms they received over lunch. Among these spiritually dedicated academics, it’s rare to hear a voice raised in anger or resentment concerning some deeply held conviction that’s just been raked over the intellectual coals. On the contrary.
Interacting with this diverse group of scholars—scientists, teachers, and theologians of all stripes—one can’t help but come away tempered by the collective wisdom in every room. It’s not just a competition, as so many conferences seem to be, for the best poster/presentation/contributed talk. It is, unlike the lion’s share of social interactions these days, not All About Me. My work. My idea. (Nevermind my critics.)
Rather, it’s about nourishing our potential for wholeness—for motivated, well-rounded scholarship and motivated, well-rounded Christianity. The first involves a commitment to extracting truth from every resource available, and listening well to those who disagree with our conclusions. The second involves the same. We don’t grow our understanding of the natural world by dogmatically repeating the same experiments, running the same numbers, over and over again. We don’t grow our faith by never moving from the same spot, never trying on a new point of view, never questioning our creeds or the commitments that make the most sense to us.
Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich recently wrote, “As Genesis 1:27 says, ‘God created man in his own image, male and female he created them.’ That’s undoubtedly the most important verse in the whole first chapter of the Bible. God as Creator has endowed us with creativity in his own image, the ability to research, to imagine, to discover many fascinating details about the nature and origin of the universe…”
Do we, as a curious species with endowed (or evolved if you prefer), creativity not owe it to each other to quiet the beast that has become our dependence on social media for fleeting amusement and empty encomia? Do we not all wish on some level that instead of once again checking Facebook and slipping into the vortex of ceaseless insignificance, we’d taken a walk outside, or sat on the porch with the sun on our faces, or read one of those books we’ve been ignoring for a good decade or so?
Are these the kinds of simple, daily habits we can encourage each other to break in favor of reaping the lasting benefits of a moment spent complimenting our neighbor’s garden or actually going to get that cup of coffee with an old friend?
Sometimes I’m not sure just what I get out of social media, why I don’t delete my accounts and the unhealthy urges that come with them. I suppose I feel I need that extra surge of publicity or confirmation once in a while, and I’ve come to count on the novel effortlessness of staying “connected” with the people I’ve known. It is also true that some things we share on the internet inspire thought-provoking replies—but when I compare this digitized Parthenon to the intensity of personal growth I experience in the company of those who don’t just “like” what I say or “agree to disagree”—that wholesale, 21st-century-style copout—whose passion for truth and whose love of one another won’t leave room for passive roles, lukewarm beliefs… I pause.
It’s in their company, not the company of one-off comments, that I realize just how much of a work in progress my convictions are, and how very, very far I have to go before I appreciate what it means to live a life of searching grace. How removed I am from that ideal, how very much I have yet to learn. How thankful I am for the people that expose my flawed thinking out of love and devotion to humility, not the alternative.
Now there’s something worth posting about.