Apr 14, 2020, 06:27AM

On Creativity, Stillness, Time, and Patterns

Responding to Alan Lightman’s "The Coronavirus is Changing Who We Are."

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Alan Lightman writing at The Atlantic"With some degree of freedom from our time-driven lives also comes increased creativity. Psychologists have long known that creativity thrives on unstructured time, on play, on nondirected “divergent thinking,” on unpurposed ramblings through the mansions of life."

Jonan Hall: This passage speaks to how difficult creativity can become when people live according to the gods of efficiency and quantification. By over-structuring our lives and our children's lives we risk burying our/their imaginations under layers of goal-setting and a constant struggle with productivity.

I was raised by a mother who spent her teenage and college years with creativity integral to her life and identity, and continued to use her imagination and creativity in her second-grade classroom, but on a personal level, the need to "be productive" won and the need for play, for unstructured time, and for strolls in nature lost. A walk became a power walk.

Letting go of time and direction has been a requirement of life with my daughter in her first three years. The awareness of time and stress come with having to plan out the late afternoons, deal with dinner and getting out the door right after dishes to teach my own class.

AL: "Habits of mind and lifestyle do not change easily. Without noticing, we slowly slip into the routines of our lives, like becoming so accustomed to living on a noisy street that we cannot remember our previous neighborhood and a time of silence. Some powerful force must strike to awaken us from our slumber. Now we have been struck. We have a chance to notice: We have been living too fast. We have sold our inner selves to the devil of speed, efficiency, money, hyper-connectivity, ‘progress.’”

JH: I think of this as autopilot. This situation, the world on pause, has allowed me to simplify my life. For the last three weeks, my hours are set by daddy duty: 6:15 or 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Those hours aren’t always easy but they allow me to escape the unending flow of COVID-19 news and the monotony and anxiety of sheltering with uncontrollable forces that mess with one's mind and can induce paranoia and panic.

I love the Celtics and the NBA and the Red Sox and MLB but without the constant stream of sports behind the daily goings-on of life, things are simpler. I'm not checking the phone unless I'm communicating or listening to a podcast or music. I'm not involved in a competition or thinking about competition. At the same time, I miss watching the Celtics, I’ll miss the NBA Playoffs, and I miss the opening of the MLB season. It's a different life, with massive restrictions on where we go, what entertainment means, and an opportunity to really decide what is important to us.

On a health note: I've found that if I read about the cellular science of the virus, or the protective behavior suggestions, especially before bed, I can start triggering my own panic and feelings of anxiety I used to get stuck in. I'm a recovering hypochondriac who had experiences with real sickness at times over the last few years. It's a strange thing to have been sick frequently since last summer (two separate stomach viruses, sinus stuff, colds, then hand/foot/mouth from preschool, and then what was either a flu or this virus in mid-February.

AL: "A momentous but little discussed study by the University of Hertfordshire in collaboration with the British Council found that the walking speed of pedestrians in 34 cities around the world increased by 10 percent just in the 10-year period from 1995 to 2005."

JH: Walking around the block in our hilly suburban town, I walk slowly with my dogs. One is older and sometimes limps. The other has a very thick coat and hates bright sunshine and any temperature over 65 degrees. I've spent the last few years walking a stroller in circles. Nothing about these walks is efficient, but I've appreciated them, even when I'm exhausted and trudging up the sidewalk. I agree with Lightman that slowing down (our body) will slow down our mind and it's much needed in our modern culture. I think compassion grows from slowing down and noticing the natural world, noticing the people we connect with, and ignoring our clocks.

AL: "But now we have been struck. With many workplaces shut down, with restaurants and movie theaters and printing shops and department stores closed, now that many of us spend the 24 hours of each day sequestered in the small caves of our homes, suddenly we find ourselves alone with our thoughts. (Excluded here are such people as the heroic workers in health care and in grocery stores, and parents with young children or elderly relatives needing constant attention.) At home, time and space have opened up in our minds."

JH: I can't imagine how different these days might be if I wasn't immersed in the attention-demands and bodily-demands of being with a nearly three-year-old. I’m alone with my thoughts at the end of the day. They become music or words or conversation. I'm worried that teaching on Zoom will alter that over the next two months. On the other hand, I hope it’ll get new conversations rolling and support the students and the classroom community I've built throughout the year.

AL: "By inner self, I mean that part of me that imagines, that dreams, that explores, that is constantly questioning who I am and what is important to me. My inner self is my true freedom. My inner self roots me to me, and to the ground beneath me. The sunlight and soil that nourish my inner self are solitude and personal reflection. When I listen to my inner self, I hear the breathing of my spirit. Those breaths are so tiny and delicate, I need stillness to hear them, I need slowness to hear them. I need vast silent spaces in my mind. I need privacy. Without the breathing and the voice of my inner self, I am a prisoner of the frenzied world around me."

JH: The inner self. The soul. Truth. All that is unbound by time or technology. We’re all yearning for those breaths, for that sense of a still mind. Our news cycle keeps many wrapped in a restless mind. Fear and addictive habits keep us scrolling, and our brains, wired to latch onto and solve problems, often create problems that don't need to exist. Digging into the self doesn’t need to lead to despair. It can lead to a wider horizon.

AL: "In the 1830s, the fast, new communication device was the telegraph, which could relay information at about 3 bits a second. That speed rose to about 1,000 bits a second in the mid-1980s with the advent of the internet. Today, the rate is 1,000,000,000 bits a second. The resulting increase in productivity in the workplace, coupled with the time-equals-money equation, has led to our acute awareness of the commercial and goal-oriented uses of time."

JH: Think of how frustrating it can be when a website doesn't load and think of how useless all of those tiny moments of frustration are. Maybe we'll come out of all this with a better sense of how to wait, a renewed sense of patience.


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