Creativity and playing

This is an edited version of an article that appears in the current issue of Manna – the journal for the Diocese of Bath and Wells, it draws on some of the thinking found in my latest book, The Only Mind Worth Having.

Creativity can be a way of connecting with God, and breaking through to something that is higher or more than our self and so can become a movement of self-transcendence. To be creative requires us to be imaginative and sometimes as adults our imagination becomes restricted and obscured.

As children we knew all about imaginative play and took it seriously, for play is about being alive and inventive and it not only transcends culture, it is much older than culture and indeed than humanity – as all animals play, especially when young. It is part of our relational consciousness and our connection with other created beings. Play involves creativity and imagination, and it can complement the realities or compensate for the deficiencies of everyday existence. ‘Let’s pretend!’ Sadly such childlike intensity of imagination tends to be lost in adulthood alongside the capacity to wonder and exclaim. Playing is often seen as something that we grow out of and ‘should’ grow out of; yet the philosopher Plato wrote that: ‘Man is made as God’s plaything and this is the best part of him. And, therefore, he should be of another mind than what he is at present and live life accordingly. Life should be lived as play.’

So why is it that our ability to play, to be imaginative and creative, so often becomes stifled? The poet William Wordsworth understood why when he wrote:
‘Shades of the prison house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy.’

It’s not only about the toll that formal education takes – the heads down and pass this test model – but as adults we are under pressure all the time to be rational, acceptable and not too emotional, we need to remain sharp, to be ‘in the know’ – all of which contribute to insecurities and leave us full of care/ careful and in some ways missing the point – the real thing about life because only half of us is alive. This, the monk and writer, Thomas Merton thought is self-defeating and our obsessional worries and rituals make the world opaque.
He writes:
‘We are devoured by care – care about our job, care about our life of prayer, care about how we are getting on, care about what other people are doing, care about this, care about that … And then the thoughts, fears, reflections, regrets, and anxieties, this constant business.’
Such care consumes, restricts and smothers us. Our imagination becomes dulled and in the outside world we appear often consumed by our capacity for destruction whilst creativity is hived off as a hobby or entertainment. And yet … and yet … underneath all the disguises that we adopt as adults there still remains the imaginative spirit of the child for nothing is completely lost.

Early sense impressions can lay dormant only to surface years later. We can be reminded of some aesthetic creative moment, if not in detail but through a feeling. This is well described by the theologian C.S. Lewis who writes of the beauty of a toy garden, some moss and twigs, made by his brother on the lid of a biscuit tin, ‘it made me aware of nature … as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant.’ The impression of that imaginative creation from early childhood later became important in memory. ‘As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.’ He writes that it later evoked in memory a sense of longing, a longing for a longing that took him out of the commonplace.

The imaginative experiences of childhood give a foundation for later creativity, and sometimes there can be direct connections. For example, Lewis’s own imaginative creativity when he was aged six, seven, or eight has some links to The Chronicles of Narnia. He acknowledges that: ‘at this time … I was living almost entirely in my imagination’ as he mapped and chronicled Animal-Land, an island with ‘dressed animals’ and ‘knights in armour.’ Lewis writes that whilst this prepared him for his later career as a novelist, the only thing that Animal-Land had in common with Narnia was ‘the anthropomorphic beasts’ as Animal-Land was ‘astonishingly prosaic’ whilst Narnia contained wonder.

For creativity can be understood as participation with the power and activity of God. Many artists and writers describe how their work almost seemed to be fuelled by a creative power that worked through them, and that their usual self-consciousness had been absent and the inner critic silenced. It has been said that every Christian, each one of us, has their own creative work to do, their own part in the mystery of the ‘new creation’, their own opportunity to touch ‘the eternal’. The secret is to stop being so busy, to re-awaken our imagination and to open our mind and spirit to hear what is being whispered in the deepest parts of our soul – an invitation to join in the joy of divine play.