The Creative Power of Tension

Rev. Peter and Worship Associate Kathy Alston explore an unlikely source of creativity: tension and anxiety. How can we harness these emotions, which have the power to paralyze us, to our advantage? 

Reading: Alice Walker, "Living by the Word"

Some periods of our growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognize that growth is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would never occur to us, unless we stumbled on a book or a person who explained to us, that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger, spiritually, than we were before. Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening. Those long periods when something inside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually become the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed.

Sermon: Rev. Peter Friedrichs - "The Creative Power of Tension"

If I ask, “Are you creative? Do you consider yourself to be a creative person?” how would you answer? Some of you, like the musicians, and the artists and the writers in the room, would likely claim their creative streak. But the vast majority of us would probably shake our heads or otherwise deny that we’re creative people. In fact, in a global study done a few years ago, more than 80 percent of those surveyed said that they thought creativity was an important attribute to have. But when asked about their own creativity, only about 25 percent claimed to be creative.[1] The problem, it seems, is that we tend to define “creativity” very narrowly. For many of us, if we’re not writing poetry or painting pictures, we’re not being “creative.” For the next few minutes, I want to invite you to crack open your perception of creativity. To expand it. Because, in my mind, the very living of our lives, day-to-day, is a creative act. Each new morning calls us – all of us - to fashion our lives anew. What, I wonder, would change if we were to look at our lives as works of art? That is a sermon in and of itself, but not where I want to focus today. What I want to do today is invite us to assume that we’re all creative, in some way, in some form. If you don’t see yourself as the “creative type,” I invite you to at least consider yourself such over the course of the next few minutes. Because what I want to talk about today is where our creativity comes from. And it might just be an unlikely source.

In her 2009 TED talk, author Elizabeth Gilbert tells about the time she met American poet Ruth Stone. The two writers were discussing this topic -where creativity comes from- and Stone described how a poem comes to her. Literally. Stone told Gilbert that “when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. She said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, "run like hell." And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn't be fast enough, so she'd be running and running, and she wouldn't get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it "for another poet."[2]

I would venture to guess that few of us, even those who seem most creative among us, have had this vivid an experience of inspiration. I know that I’ve never had a poem coming storming towards and through me like that. When we think of creative inspiration, we tend to think of more serene imagery, don’t we? Maybe we find our inspiration out in the midst of nature, or sitting quietly at home watching dust motes dancing in filtered sunlight. Maybe other works of creativity inspire your own. Visiting a museum, or attending a concert, or watching a film. I know that I’m much more likely to do my own creative writing when I’m reading poetry or fiction that others have written.

Creativity can be stimulated by an experience, but when we think about where creativity comes from, we generally think that it’s something that’s generated from within us. This, I think, is why we sometimes thing we’re not creative: Because some people have “got it” and others don’t. Sometimes we think that we were standing in the wrong line when the “creativity gene” was being passed out. Elizabeth Gilbert explores this in her TED talk, too. And she tells us that it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that we began to see words like “artist” and “genius” and “creative” as attributes that individuals possessed (or didn’t) within themselves. Before that, in the times of the Romans and Greeks, creativity and genius were things that resided outside ourselves. They were beings or spirits separate from ourselves, who showed up (or didn’t) of their own volition. Back then, she tells us, “People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.” In fact, the Romans called this divine, disembodied spirit a “genius.” People didn’t possess genius. They were visited by genius.

What I love about this conception of inspiration is that it’s not limited to the very few. Anyone could be visited by genius and, according to this formulation, the creative spirit could alight within any one of us at any time. Creativity isn’t something we “have” or don’t “have.” It isn’t something that we either “are” or “are not.” This is a very hopeful way of looking at creativity, isn’t it? I know from my own experience that, when I’m working on a poem – or more accurately a poem is working on me – even when I’m writing a sermon, I’m usually unable to “think” it through or to wrestle it to the ground through sheer determination and willpower. Instead, words, phrases, lines, images come to me – from where, I don’t know – while I’m running, or mowing the lawn, or even while I’m paddling in that boundary water between sleep and wakefulness. They don’t come roaring at me across the field like they did for Ruth Stone, but they come from somewhere, some unknown source that isn’t conscious thought.

Now, it’s wonderful to think about sitting on a log in the middle of the woods or watching a sunset to find our inspiration, or being visited in the middle of the night by the spirit of the genius that lives in the wall of our home (although that might also be a bit terrifying).  When we think of being inspired, of moments or events in which we’ve felt the spark of inspiration and creativity, I venture to guess that most of us picture these “mountaintop experiences.” They’re powerful, but they’re usually pleasant. But I want to shift our attention now to less likely, and less positive, sources of inspiration and creativity. Things like fear. And anxiety. And tension. I’m guessing that, if I were to ask you what inspires you, what gets your creative juices flowing, these aren’t the first things that come to mind.

So, let’s take a step back from the personal for a moment and think about how groups, teams and systems function, and about their creativity. Now, in many cases we like to be part of a group or system that is free from tension and anxiety. It’s why we gravitate to groups that are made up of like-minded people. This church is a good example of that. We come here, at least in part, to be with others who share our values and perspectives and with whom we can work toward a common purpose. The challenge we face in groups like this is that we can get really comfortable. We can develop blind spots and fail to see things going on around us that need attention. And our comfort can lull us into a kind of sleepwalking, where we’re not looking for ways to change and grow and innovate. Ways to be creative. In those cases, it often takes someone from the outside, someone who’s not part of the system, to come in and shake things up. To ask why we’re doing things the way we do, or why we’re not doing them differently. And what’s our reaction when this happens, for those of us living very happily within the system or group? We can see the outsider’s observation as a threat. We resist. Tension and anxiety ensue. Peter Senghe, the organizational dynamics writer, talks about creating tension between “current reality” and an imagined future, or a vision of something different. He uses a rubber band to demonstrate the two, and how tension can be used to get us from one place to another. And he reminds us that a rubber band, stretched to its maximum, its point of greatest tension, has the greatest potential energy.[3]

It doesn’t always take an outsider to create this tension, and in a healthy system, group or team you’ll always have someone, or someones, who seek to challenge the prevailing norms. These people know how to introduce new ideas and to ask probing questions in a way that introduces just the right amount of tension and anxiety so that it’s disruptive, but not destructive. I look at what Jody Malloy and Laurie Cooke did several years ago when they asked why we weren’t more successful in recruiting volunteer leaders here in church. Posing this question disrupted the church system, and eventually led to our Growth Through Service program. It’s happening again with the Sunday Morning Hospitality Team program, which promises to build relationships while offering us all an even better Sunday morning experience. Right now, our Anti-Racism Strategy Team is wrestling with the question of whether there is sufficient discomfort in our church system around issues of race to motivate us to do the hard work of becoming a truly anti-racist congregation. And, if not, how might we introduce sufficient tension to get us moving.

On a personal level, we tend to see fear, tension, and anxiety as negative emotions. We try to reduce them as much as we can. We seek comfort and ease in our lives, not discomfort and dis-ease. But what if we shifted our perspective a little? What if we looked at anxiety as a creative force in our lives? A motivator for change? What if, instead of running from our fears or being paralyzed by them, we chose to embrace them as a source of inspiration? What if we could see the tensions in our lives as presenting the possibility of transformation? Many years ago, during the depths of my depression, I found myself in one of my most creative phases. In fact, I feared for a long time that I would never write a poem from a place of mental health, and that I could only be creative out of that place of brokenness. I’m glad to find that that’s not the case, but looking back I can see that even in some of my darkest days I was visited by the creative spirit. More recently, and less dramatically, I have used a terrifying nightmare, one that I kept seeing over and over again in my head, as a source of inspiration for a novel that I’m working on.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we all need to be anxious or fearful to be creative. Sometimes that image of the tortured artist, like Vincent Van Gogh, can keep us from believing that we ourselves are creative. But I am suggesting that our fears, our anxieties, our tensions are not inherently or exclusively detrimental and destructive. They can, if we choose to see them as such, be forces that take us to creative new spaces. Forces that guide us to new ways of seeing, and new ways of being in the world. May it be so.


Closing Words

Our closing words today come from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He writes:

I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help people rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”