Tuesday, July 28, 2020

How Loss Triggers Creativity


My last post was about deaf-blind Helen Keller’s discovery that language and her mind were the secret of a happy life.  By means of words she learned to connect with other minds, and by means of her own mind she learned to identify and cultivate her sense of self.

It’s not easy to have a firm sense of who or what we are.  Much if not most of what I am is largely unknown; my conscious life is a fragment of my subliminal mental life.  Knowledge of myself is therefore incomplete; I must accept as intimate companion the greater self I am but barely know. 

The interesting part of this paradox: We can never know in advance what hidden sides of ourselves might suddenly spring forth—given the right stimulus or circumstance.

From Keller’s story I cull illustrations of how loss can trigger creativity.  I’m dwelling on this for obvious reasons.  It’s toward the end of July, 2020, and the Covid19 pandemic is spiking all over, especially in the United States.  As a consequence, people everywhere are suffering loss: of jobs; of their homes; of access to libraries and places of worship; of parks and beaches; of contact with family and friends; and as we know, of their lives.  It’s an avalanche of crises calling for creative leaps into the new and unknown.  

Two points about Keller’s story.  One is how the loss of two senses triggered extraordinary creativity in the remaining three, especially the sense of touch.  “The silence and darkness which are said to shut me in,” she wrote, “open my door most hospitably to countless sensations that inform, admonish, and amuse.”  Her loss frees her from distractions and helps her concentrate more effectively. “If the eye is maimed so that it does not see the beautiful face of day, the touch becomes more poignant and discriminating.”

“Through the sense of touch I know the faces of friends, the illimitable variety of straight and curved lines, all surfaces, the exuberance of the soil, the delicate shapes of flowers, the noble forms of trees, and the range of mighty winds. . . . Often footsteps reveal in some measure the character and mood of the walker.  I feel in them firmness and indecision, hurry and deliberation, activity and laziness, fatigue, carelessness, timidity, anger, and sorrow.” She picks all this up from the vibrations she feels through her skin!  From there she moves on to describe the information she gathers about the world through the infinite variety of footsteps that register on her tactile sense. “Every atom of my body is a vibroscope,” writes Keller.

The various ‘sounds’ she discriminates that correspond to vibrations felt through her sense of touch is astonishing—a pencil rolling on the floor, the pop of a cork, a clock ticking, a flame sputtering, a book falling with a thud, and so on. Deaf in her soundless world, she writes with dazzling clarity about the grinding, scraping, pounding, all the harsh vibes of the city, while smelling the” fire-pots, the tar and cement. So I am acquainted with all the fiendish noises which can be made by man or machinery. . . . all these have been in my touch-experience, and contribute to my idea of Bedlam . . ..”   This calls to mind another admirer of Helen Keller, William James, who once noted about New York City its “permanent earthquake conditions.”

Here is what she said about holding Mark Twain’s hand: “Mark Twain’s hand is full of whimsies and the drollest humors, and while you hold it the drollery changes into sympathy and championship.” The latter is from a chapter on what it’s like to shake hands with people when you have evolved a super-sensitive capacity to feel through your hands.  With Helen, super-sensitivity evolved from the loss of her sight and hearing.  One never knows what powers may be released from the loss we endure.

I want to make a more general point about loss and creativity.  Without being glib or emotionally tone-deaf to all the misery, it’s worth reminding ourselves that having our lives shaken up may also lead to new ideas, new values, new perspectives on how to live. Sometimes, as history often shows, things fall apart so that new things can come together.  When the dinosaurs were wiped out sixty-five million years ago by an asteroid, it gave mammals the room they needed to evolve into the most intelligent, and most dangerous, animal on earth—homo sapiens.  What was really bad news for dinosaurs was a bonanza for the species that is now reeling from a deadly pandemic.

Perhaps the ‘dinosaur’ factor in human reality will go extinct from the asteroid that is the coronavirus sweeping through our lives. There are curious signs of creative logic lurking in disaster, as revealed in stories of brain injuries unleashing extraordinary mathematical and artistic powers and of near-death experiences transforming everyday people. 

It’s as if we live in a two-storied reality game, the lower everyday terrestrial world which dominates our easily hypnotized attention and the largely invisible transcendent world. It’s when the brain loses contact with everyday reality that the transcendent breaks into consciousness. The more the scaffolding and infrastructure of everyday life collapses, the greater the probability of higher consciousness crashing in on us. The trick is to survive and come out standing on top.  

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