by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship
Many, many years ago I visited the palm reader’s booth at a Renaissance Faire. The palm reader studied my hand for a minute or two, and then pronounced: “You have a lot of creative energy.” She looked again and said “You have a LOT of creative energy!” I was amused and pleased to hear that from her (although I don’t particularly believe in palm reading). After all, I’m someone who loves to write and sing and dance. I hope people who actually know me think I’m creative.
But I’ve wondered since then what it means to have a lot of creative energy. Does it mean that you create things like drawings and songs and poems? Does it mean that you create those sorts of things and other people think that they’re good? Or does it mean that you have a flexible mind, and you can come up with solutions to problems that nobody else thinks of?
Or does having creative energy mean that you are able to connect ideas or information in surprising ways, so that you come up with new of understanding the world? What does it feel like when we’re full of creative energy? Is creative energy something that some people just have more of than others, or it is something you can encourage and grow?
I was recently riding in the back seat of my friend’s car, along with her nine-year-old son Dylan. (Another adult in our carpool was in the front.) My friend had mentioned that Dylan felt left out of the adult conversation on our previous ride together, so I was paying particular attention to including him as we chatted. This, as it turned out, meant that our conversation wandered toward contemplating what a leaf dragon would look like, imagining leaves with smiley faces that turned vicious and full of teeth if you got them mad, and on into the makings of a story in which our hero had to cross a magic forest without stepping on any leaves, lest those leaves turn out to be the dragon kind that not only would bite if angered, but would turn themselves into trees that shed thousands more chomping leaves.
I think it’s safe to say that it was a conversation with quite a lot of creative energy. And it reminded me that since my own child has become a teenager, I rarely have conversations that are quite that imaginative. I have lots of interesting friends, and we talk about interesting things, but rarely in that same inventive, playful way. Adults mostly forget to do that.
Which made me wonder about the connection between creative energy and play. Adults tend to think of being creative as making things—stories or songs or paintings or what have you. Which is great. But it’s awfully easy when you’re creating things to get caught up in whether what you’re making is good, whether other people will like it or be impressed with it or even want to buy it. And those are the kinds of concerns that can squash creative energy.
But when we play, like Dylan and I did during that car conversation, we aren’t worried about what it is that we are creating. We let things happen in the moment, without any agenda about what should come out of the experience. You play in order to play, just for the fun of it. And part of the fun is that you don’t know what is going to happen.
That’s one reason psychologists are now telling us that video games and educational software aren’t as good for developing brains as unstructured play alone or with a group of friends. If your activity has a goal—to get to the next level, to learn a skill, to win the game—then it isn’t really play. There isn’t room for creative energy to flow. Our brains wire themselves into predictable pathways, and the creative path that wanders, making surprising connections to arrive at surprising conclusions, gets lost.
The good news is that it’s never too late to take up playing as a hobby. And it’s also never too late to create new connections in your brain (although it’s easier when you’re young). So whatever your age, you might want to get serious about building play time into your life. If you’re an adult, and you feel like you don’t really know how to play, you might want to start hanging out with young people like my friend Dylan.
It turns out that playing is something that people (and other animals) are naturally good at, so if you want to play you just need to find someone who hasn’t forgotten how, and then be open to entering the game. Creative energy wants to flow. You might be surprised (and pleased!) to find what comes pouring out if you remove the dam!