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From Vol. 3, Issue 4, April 2021

Are We Wise or Playful?


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Wisdom as the outgrowth of play

We call our species Homo sapiens (wise man), but I’ve wondered if we aren’t more fundamentally Homo ludens (playing man) and Homo faber (making man). Whatever wisdom we possess is likely an outgrowth of our nature which inclines toward play, trying things for their own sake without being wedded to outcome, and making stuff. Wisdom requires and grows from experience. We play. We try. We make. We thus learn and continuously refine our views, methods, and actions.

Play’s the thing

When we wholly give ourselves over to play or to making something, we feel in sync with Nature, one of Stoicism’s prized objectives. Sometimes, however, that horse won’t go. The well is dry. Your muse splits on vacation with no forwarding number. Anyone who has a creative life privately or professionally knows that barren, depressing feeling when ideas which flowed so effortlessly yesterday or last week just grind to a halt. All that’s left is the accusatory hum of the refrigerator and the blank page or canvas. Except: you need to design that seminar, paint that painting, write that chapter, choreograph that dance, build that shed. So something’s gotta give.

Creativity, the process of idea generation in service of beauty, emotional impact, or practical effect is fickle. Yet, it’s absolutely necessary to solve problems, meet challenges, make art, and to feel fully alive.

The four Stoic pillars as aids to creativity

When we inevitably experience dry spells or writer’s block, the four pillars of Stoic virtue can be helpful levers to keep us on track. Even when we feel our hearts just aren’t “in it,” whatever “it” is, we must find ways to keep showing up to our projects and plans and to avoid spiraling into paralysis and hopelessness.

Stoicism contains ideas that can tease us out of our funks. The Stoics created an elaborate catalog of virtues embraced by Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation that can help us kick the rust out of our gears.

I know I’m slipping into a creative funk when I start to avoid or postpone whatever creative work is at hand. When this happens, I consider the four main Stoic virtues in sequence. I step away from my work and begin with considering my project in light of wisdom. Wisdom reminds me to take my attention off my current anxiety and to instead take the long view. As soon as I do this, I remember that it is the nature of our minds to generate ideas, but sometimes the mind takes a rest to replenish. This replaces my fear “I’ll never have a decent idea again” with expectant curiosity.

Next, I think about justice which contains integrity. I ask myself if I have something true to say with my art or my music or my writing. It is this question that can expose the instances when I’m trying to seem a certain way in my creations; I am vainly trying to control the effect my work will have on my audience. This leads to stilted art and a sense of bad faith. Adjusting in the direction of truth liberates fresh ideas.

Then comes courage. Courage is doing something even when it frightens you or makes you uncomfortable. The way I apply this in the case of writing, for example, is what I call “butt in chair anyway”. This means whether I’m feeling creative or desolate, I stay in the chair anyway and keep typing. I clock in, put words - any words - on the paper and clock out when I’m done. Even if I write garbage today, chances are, tomorrow I’ll discover a few gold nuggets in there that I can run with.

Finally, I attend to moderation which, viz. the creative process, I take to mean not coming at my work heavy handedly, trying to force ideas to fit together, or rigidly insisting that some music I’m composing be brilliant. Instead, I try to relax in body, mind, and spirit and allow ideas to be gently made welcome.

Cycling through these four virtues is a comforting habit, one that takes attention off the ego, and grants much needed perspective during those creative deserts that will always be part of any worthwhile creation.

Sharon Lebell is the author of The Art of Living: The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, the first modern interpretation of Epictetus’ teachings. She Tweets@SharonLebell.