Ideas and the end of the world

dinosaur

In nature, we organisms have a tendency to seek balance. We want to adapt to our environment and develop the most efficient life style based on the resources around us. You and your descendants will change in order to find your niche. If there is an abundance of a certain hard nut, those with a large, hard nut cracking beak will survive. If the leaves are most plentiful at the top of the trees, those with longer necks will flourish. Once you reach this equilibrium, you won’t have much incentive to continue changing. In fact, change could imperil your success as a species.
As a result, evolution goes in spurts of change with long periods of stasis in between.
Our lives work the same way: most of us tend to seek a stable job, a stable community, a regular diet, or form of exercise. We find a place we like to vacation and we go there every year and lie in the sun reading our favorite authors. We go to the same church, vote the same party line. We make friends with people who share our interests and we settle into regular social schedules with them.
We avoid disruption. We shun risk.
Deep in our reptile brains, we know that this is the key to survival. Herds only change grazing lands when the drought comes.
There are two results of this type of habitual existence: The first is that we are afraid of trying something new for fear that it won’t bring us the same level of reliable reassurance as the things we have always been doing. We don’t want to endure the discomfort of failure or even of the unknown. We prefer to limit suspense to Friday night at the movies. Better not to do at all than to do badly. We wouldn’t want to stick out and possibly send ripples through the quiet watering hole. I’m not saying any of this derisively; it’s a perfectly logical perspective, a perspective the vast majority of people in our society share. Far better the devil you know.
The second result is that we are completely unhinged when change does occur. And there is no question that it will occur, as sure as summer follows spring, as death follows the cradle, as the #9 train rolls into Christopher Street station.
America had no real idea how to respond, for example, to September 11. When I was eleven and living in Israel, terrorist bombings were regular events. When my bus stop was blown up fifteen minutes before school let out, they didn’t even bother reporting it in the local paper. But in America we had a real sense of apocalyptic doom after the World Trade Center attacks. It seemed like everything was going to unravel and our entire way of life was done. We were like hens in a coop, completely unable to interpret any howl in the night. Perhaps that’s why we have so many pundits, so many people who reassure us by telling us what is to come. The fact that their collective opinions cover every possible outcomes doesn’t shake our confidence.
My point is not political. Because what I am really discussing here is creativity. We must understand that creativity is both essential to survival and anathema. That’s why it can be so hard to overcome the resistance we have to our own creativity. Why it causes us such a deep sense of fear and dread. And it is why artists are so reviled in our fat, contented world. Look at the government sponsored art of the WPA. Look at the creativity that springs up during revolutions. Think of the wild architecture that was proposed to rebuild downtown New York in the immediate wake of the attacks. As the dust still lingered we welcomed a vision of a new world, collective recognition that our times and our landscapes were different. But all too quickly, we became more conservative, more calcified and the designs morphed back into the predictable, corporatist visions that suited a calming with the public mood.
To be creative, you must be brave and allow your self to take risks. You also must be a little crazy to take these risks.
But have an appropriate degree of perspective. You must reassure yourself that by doing a watercolor or throwing a pot you won’t set off some chain reactions that destroys your entire universe. The whole reason that you are feeling any sort of need to be creative is because you, as an organism, feel some need to adapt to changes in your environment. Your job may be too restrictive. Your relationship may be showing you new possibilities. Your daily paper may be reshuffling your deck. Your body may be changing. Or you may just be more sensitive than those around you, a canary on the coal mine, a bell weather to changes that others don’t yet sense.
Under all those conditions, creative change is no longer a risk, It’s an imperative. Give yourself the chance to experiment and reconfigure your life. Start today. Before the volcano erupts or the meteor hits the earth, before you get run over by a bus, or your candidate loses, or your bosses makes a cut back, before the changes erupt, and it’s all too late. And even then, it won’t be.
It’ll just be time to stop being a dinosaur and start figuring out how to become a bird.