My job is a beautiful combination of creativity and criticality.
And admin. Don’t forget the admin.
I am paid to have an opinion on a number of things and to share that opinion. Critical evaluation is my bread and butter. This week alone, I’ve poured about 5000 words into developmental comments for students on their preaching assignments. I’ve provided sharpening feedback in relation to the two PhD students I’m about to supervise and reflected on someone else’s feedback for a third research student. I’ve given an opinion on the wisest way forward in relation to a faculty matter. I’ve begun to evaluate how to respond to developmental feedback on a paper I’ve had accepted for journal publication.
Criticality is one of my strengths. I’m good at taking something and diagnosing quickly where are its strengths and what would make it even better. In fact, where what I’m evaluating is written, I rarely even have to think about my critique. It is just there, fully formed, waiting for me to let words tumble out.
And this means that I can churn through a lot of critical evaluation work in a day. In fact, it can come at me like a factory line and I can keep adding my little piece of the final product without missing a beat. In its way, there is a certain satisfaction in that. My Get Things Done efficiency, trained into me as a lawyer recording her time and now honed to perfection as an academic in an increasingly managerial sector, pays off in this regard.
But the problem with factory-line criticality is that I begin to believe creativity might operate in the same way.*
And it doesn’t.
Thursday this week, after all that I just mentioned was accomplished between Monday and Wednesday, I needed the creative spark to ignite. And, on the face of it, the day’s output requirement was low. One sermon. And one pitch regarding content for a conference where I’ve been asked to give a keynote address.
But on Wednesday night, I had a meltdown. The sermon, I knew, would probably be OK because I’d sensed a spark the Sunday before when reading the passage. But the conference has been a blockage for me for a while. I know what I want to speak on – and eventually to draft a paper about – but I can’t quite get hold of its big, and preferably original, idea. And so I dreaded that Thursday night would come with no creative progress.
Even in the midst of meltdown, I knew my problem. My life has been too GTD-efficient lately. I’ve been cramming commitments into every corner: as per usual, work overflows its allegedly part-time limits, both in terms of time and emotional capacity; mentoring and spiritual direction commitments have been higher than normal, even to the extent of me compromising my day off on a fairly regular basis; and I’ve been pushing myself to deal with my research backlog and get some of the stuff out for peer review.
(Note to self: starting to GTD-administrate everything that moves is the surest sign your inner issues are about to overflow!)
I’ve been absolutely owning the criticality and the admin. They are no match for my efficiency. But the creativity needs room to breathe. Creativity needs space and freedom. It needs to begin from idleness:
To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil.**
This poised waiting, an active receptivity, requires stillness. It demands quietness and trust. And recent weeks have not provided a whole lot of space for active receptivity in this regard.
In the end, Thursday proved a gift of grace. An hour or two in the morning produced the keynote address proposal and renewed my hope that there will prove to be originality buried somewhere in the topic area. And two hours in the afternoon produced a reasonable first draft of the sermon. But these feelings have caused me to think again, this time in the language of Alan Fadling:
We tend to see rest as the place we fall into after we’ve worn ourselves out with work. But what if our best work begins from a place of rest? What if rest takes first priority rather than last?
Alan Fadling, An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest
My prayer life has shifted over the last nine months into beginning from a place of rest. I have given up much of my doing in prayer, my practices become simple and minimal, anything more than this only as response to him. And, from its place of rest, my prayer life has become perhaps more fruitful than ever before.
But what if it were not just my prayer life that would begin from a place of rest? What if my working life began from there too? What kinds of words-based creativity might the Spirit birth through me for the sake of his church if only I would begin from the active receptivity that is rest?
And, because you’re in this with me, let me ask you this: what might it mean to begin from rest in your life, not leaving that place until you have received that which you will then give?
* I’m not hereby intending to suggest that there is no creativity in criticality. There can be. Let’s argue about the ins and outs of that in a more academic space though, because I suspect no one else cares!
** My use of this quotation from Moby Dick depends on Eugene Peterson’s reflective engagement with it.