II. 6. Creativity and Wisdom
Facing our mortality spurs creativity and brings wisdom.
A key dimension to true aliveness is fully developing our potential for creative, artistic, and original expression. Our mortality is intimately related to this process.
People have, over the ages, found that facing their deepest pain about death is a spur to creativity. The most dramatic examples are people whose careers are changed by the experience, like the writer, Anthony Burgess, who quit his bureaucratic job after receiving a terminal diagnosis, began writing and -- not dying after all - went on to a prolific career as an author.
It is partly that facing death reminds us that life is short, and causes us to question whether we wish to waste so much of it on boring work, unsatisfying relationships, or various addictions. It is also that the reminder of how short and precious life is can spur us to greater effort to express ourselves, to work at creating with far greater intensity that if we know that we would live forever, and have endless time in which to work it out.
But, more fundamentally, facing death spurs creativity by breaking through our conventional ways of feeling, thinking and experiencing the world. Deepening and broadening our capacity to feel, realizing the incredible preciousness of our experience of life due to the brevity of our time here, can help us break through the conventionality that so deadens us, and to dare to take greater risks in expressing ourselves originally. When we allow ourselves to feel our deepest sadness at the short time we have left to live we tend to be less concerned with the judgments of others that often so limit our creativity and powers of artistic expression.
It is striking also how often our embracing life by facing death leads to creative efforts that are concerned with the issue of death itself. Many of the greatest poems, music, theater, fiction, non-fiction, sculpture, painting and cinema over the centuries have been devoted to thoughts and feelings dealing with the issue of death.
And perhaps the deepest way that the issue of death is related to creativity is this: artistic expression is perhaps our most profound and appropriate outlet for expressing the feelings and thoughts that bubble to the surface when we break through our denial of death. These sentiments are so profound that normal expression does not begin to convey what we are thinking and feeling. It is art alone that provides a means to express most vividly and accurately our deepest emotions.
Facing death also makes us wiser. Gregory Bateson has defined information as the perception of difference, knowledge as seeing the pattern than connects. Our daily newspapers "inform" us by emphasizing difference, experts search to understand connecting patterns.
True wisdom, however, is not primarily intellectual. It is first and foremost an experience of the pattern that patterns, an intuitive and deep inner knowing of both the laws that govern human existence, and the mystery that transcends human understanding and meaning. Facing our deepest feelings about the mystery of our birth and our death, experiencing our firefly life as the moment in eternity it is, sensing our true place in the cosmos, and experiencing not only our connection with but existence as an expression of the impermanence of all life, is a path to the deepest kind of wisdom.