stress

The Pace of Wonder

We all lament the pace of our lives. Despite our best efforts to slow down it seems we often crowd so much into our lives that we cannot settle, we cannot enjoy, we cannot slow, and we certainly cannot stop. Whenever my son, Finnden, is trying to pretend he is not getting sleepy he overcompensates by rushing from one thing to the next. He turns into a bit of a maniac, bouncing about endlessly, shifting from one leg to the the other, shouting for no discernible reason, and generally being terribly disobedient. Sometimes I feel like that manic child.

But today I was fascinated to watch Finnden playing with his wooden train set. I helped him lay a track that coursed through the barren wheat-field of our living room carpet, and as soon as I connected the last piece I was ready to set a battery-operated train engine on it, press the button, and watch it go a few rounds.

But not Finn.

Finnden wanted to push the train. Forget the buttons or the speed. He wanted to slowly connect other cars to the engine and fill them with their cargo. He wanted to painstakingly push the lumbering train around the track, head lying low the ground, watching every slow turn of the engine’s wheels from eye level.

When he came to the windmill he wanted to spin it. When he came to the mountain, he slowly chugged up its slope and down the other. When he came to the crossing, he pressed buttons and listened to the noises and opened and closed the gates again and again.

I watched in amazement as it took him a full half hour before his little “choo-choo” had made it all the way around the little track. Such concentration, such deliberation, such wonder and enjoyment.

Certainly, we all need to get better at learning the things we should shoulder and the things we should refuse. But if we’ve mastered the word “no” and have not learned to slacken our pace a little…well…

There will always be things that compete for our attention. There will always be ideas or engagements or projects to which we cannot say no. There will always be deadlines and work to do. But when we discover wonder it is as though time stops even when it hasn’t. When we are captivated by what we have in front of us and around us—peering into things from eye level, attending to the details, enjoying the process—we will suddenly find that our business can become quite endurable, even enjoyable, like a child at play. Perhaps the only way to slow down is not to find more time but to find more wonder, to find more play, to find more enjoyment in the things we encounter along our way.

Panic Room

I’m sick in bed today. I’m not surprised. Not surprised in the least. Every year about this time I find myself sick in bed; it’s inevitable. There’s no question in my mind that I’ve done this to myself.  As the creative director for a church, my life has been carried away for the last two months due to the all-consuming lead-up to Christmas. There have been scripts written, presentations prepared, approvals gained, casts assembled, rehearsals scheduled, sets constructed and on and on and on. All of this has been packed into a very small frame of time, and that’s meant long hours at all hours. On top of this, I’ve eaten poorly, slept little, and generally pushed myself to my limits. As a result, my exhausted body has begun to give up, little by little. Rather than just letting in the good, nourishing things, its weakened defenses have allowed passage to unwanted things. These things, these intruders, have found their way into my body and made a home. They make me cough, and ache, and run a fever and the like. They are toxic. They are unwelcome. Yes, they’ve been invited, in a way, but now I’d like them to leave. Yet, my only defense is rest and routine, nourishment and nurturing.

But what I’m thinking about today is that this kind of pace and this kind of project is also difficult on the mind, and the soul, the creative soul.

Creative people often give far too much weight to the work of conceiving an idea. We talk about needing inspiration and creative space, we talk about the burden of “being blocked” and the ever-present fear that we’ll never have a good idea again. But I’m convinced that the truly difficult work for an artist—the thing that should garner both admiration and fear—is the work of seeing that idea through to completion.

To finish an idea, to make the vision reality inherently means driving our creativity very hard. See, in order to see an idea come to life in the way you’ve envisioned it there are many hurdles to overcome. There are constraints in talent, in people, in budget, in processes, and certainly in time. To overcome each of these obstacles, you are constantly maneuvering right and left, making cuts here or rewriting a scene there. This is hard work, and it is hard on our creative souls.

Because the creative soul is much like the body. It has defenses that allow it to hold certain things at bay while allowing in the nourishment it needs. But in the midst of a project, as the deadline looms and the pressures grow, it begins to let in some things that shouldn’t belong. Stress—that atrophying force—finds a home. External expectations—a poisonous dread of what others will think—also creeps in. Fear—the nemesis of creativity—finds a place to roost.

And then I find myself at a tipping point. The things I want to come into my creativity—inspiration, hope, helpful ideas, divine maneuvers—are coming less and less, crowded out by the dangerous things that my creativity tries to hold at bay.

That’s when I shut off. 

My creative soul goes into panic mode and seals its doors completely. Everything goes quiet. 

At that point, my eyes focus hard on the finish line and cannot be swayed. I cannot hear any new ideas, I cannot expand my creative vision, and I cannot leap over any new hurdles. The creative vision is locked. And this isn’t a bad thing. It means I can get things done. It means that I’m not adding to the idea or changing it anymore, and it means I can actually get the thing over and done with. This kind of lockdown is an imperative part of my workflow.

But it’s also dangerous.

It’s dangerous because I have closed myself off to new inspiration, and I’ve locked within me the seeds of stress and expectations. There is nothing good coming in anymore, and there is some stuff that’s not-so-good harbored within. If I can’t quickly find my way out of this panic room once the project is finished I will become very sick. Just like my body succumbs to the viruses and bacteria that have snuck past its weakened defenses, my creative self will begin to be seriously diseased by the crush of stress and insecurity.

I think that’s what happened last year, and I didn’t even see it coming. I felt so overjoyed after Christmas, buoyed by a grand sense of accomplishment and the way it had all been received, but I did not recognize the intruders I had allowed to creep into my heart. Winters are always a bit tough for me as I tend to sway toward melancholy anyway, but I also found myself unable to dream, or be inspired, or act or do much of anything for a long while.

I was sick. My creative self was sick. And I couldn’t put my finger on it. I didn’t know what medicine to take.

This year, I’m hoping I can prescribe myself some things that will get me back up and running more quickly. Perhaps some time in bed will help.

Oh, and writing. Writing is always good. I need to start that habit up again.