Sometimes I wonder if I have my priorities straight.
I went to a panel discussion recently where the topic was connecting community. The discussion around who and what get left out of community building had a big impact on me. It got me thinking about how I spend my time and where I focus my energy, and wondering whether I'm really being the person I want to be.
A homeless man asks me for change while I'm trying to sell my artwork at a street fair, and I feel uncomfortable.
An earthquake obliterates parts of Nepal and I'm worrying about whether an art project will turn out right.
Someone I care about is going through a breakup, or an illness, and I forget to call them because I'm so immersed in a project.
I stop volunteering with immigrants and other newcomers because I want to spend my time building my business and taking dance classes.
I use what seems like mountains of paper when I'm printmaking - some ends up in a frame on a wall, but a lot of it goes to the recycling bin.
At times like these, I can't help wondering: Is creativity really as important as I think it is? Is my focus on living a creative life getting in the way of me helping the world the way I should? Does creativity really matter that much?
Do you ever feel like this? Do you ever feel like it's selfish for you to devote time to something that seems like it's just for fun, when people around you are suffering? Do you ever wish that you had more time for creativity, then immediately feel guilty because some people don't have time to spend with their families? Do you ever wonder whether the environment can support the waste your creative process creates?
I want to leave the world a little bit better than I found it. I want to do good, to create change, and to have a positive influence. But is messing around at my craft table really the best way to do that? Should I be looking for a more reliable source of income so I can give more away? Should I be volunteering my time instead of making art? Ideally I would one day be able to do all these things, but that still leaves the question: Is developing creativity really worthwhile when there are so many more seemingly pressing needs?
Confronted with so many questions, the only thing I know how to do is to get still and think about what I believe at the core of my being:
Creativity is very important. In fact, it just might be what saves us.
First of all, I remind myself of all the ways that art and creativity - while not as necessary as food, water and medicine - can help people in very concrete ways. Art shows and benefit concerts can be used to raise money for those in need. An interest in the arts can give disenfranchised and marginalized people a voice (like the homeless poet whose book I bought a few summers ago, or this amazing piano player). A thoughtful, handmade card can help ease a friend's pain. Art can call attention to societal issues and raise awareness, like the work of this Chinese artist. And using recycled materials in artwork can help ease the burden on the environment. By promoting creativity, I can encourage possibilities like these to flourish.
But creativity can help in more abstract, subtle ways as well. Even if you're not looking to make a huge impact with your creativity, even if your efforts stay private, I believe that acting on our creative impulses changes us and changes how we show up in the world. Even if your art - in whatever form it takes - never leaves a locked room, you do. Exercising your creativity means that you're engaged, and you're paying attention. It means that you're satisfying your need to make a mark and to express yourself, and embracing your humanity.
This can have a major ripple effect. When you feel positive and fulfilled, you are more likely to reach out to other people and to take positive actions that might shape how someone else's day goes. When you see the joy that creativity brings you, you're more likely to encourage it in others: in your family and your community. You're more likely to stand up for the arts, and to donate your time and money to causes that you care about. I don't have scientific proof for this, but I've seen this effect at work in my own life, and the lives of my friends. When you find something that's really meaningful in your life, suddenly everything is more meaningful.
In an ideal world, we would all both practice creativity and do everything we can to improve the world. In the real world of limited time and resources, and pressure coming from all sides, we know that we can't do everything and we have to choose where to focus our energy. I would argue that creativity is a good place to start.
What do you think? Can creativity change the world? Have you seen its positive effects in your own life, or the lives of people around you? Leave a comment below.
"Central to our survival has been the ability to communicate ideas, and art is one tool for developing the ability to imagine, observe, record and communicate thoughts." Scott Berkun
The photo above is of an Egyptian student painting graffiti on the walls of a university near Tahrir Square in Cairo.