Briars, Rocks, and Scary Beasts

Posted on March 6, 2012


Creativity is overrated. I’m serious.

Mr. van Gogh was not a healthy man. Thomas Edison may have called to his wife to come see his burning factory because “she was never going to see this again,” but I’m sure she would rather he was referring to a sunset or a weird bug. And I don’t think anyone who loves what Steve Jobs has given us would like to magically transform his or her own boss into the maniacal guru’s clone. We need a few creative geniuses, but our society would struggle if we had too many, because the fact is, creative geniuses come with baggage.

When my kids were little they loved the movie Wild America. I wouldn’t say I loved it, so they watched borrowed copies. Chaos reined constantly in it, the boys made outlandishly stupid choices that endangered themselves and each other, and traditional patterns of order (of any kind) were nonexistent. These children were out of control and I did not view it as good parenting, good family life, or good social modelling. I did not care that the real-life counterparts of the characters grew up to be award-winning nature documentarians. I liked the real-life Wild America, but it was not. worth. that. I never thought his movies compensated for his childhood.

There’s a reason the road less traveled is, well, less traveled.

An article this morning has me thinking about the relationships we create in society to get things done. We do need geniuses, and life seems to create them and give them to us here and there, explorer malcontents with a passion for what could be and a restless dissatisfaction with what is. These disruptors help society (I don’t think any of us want to give back our ipods just because Steve Jobs was a merciless boss) but I’m reminded of my childhood experience with vanilla.

My mom was making something and I smelled the vanilla as she took off the lid and added it to the bowl. I said hungrily, “umm, that smells good.” I told her that I thought she should put more of it in. She replied that it was important to follow the recipe because it turned out best that way. I did not believe her. If some is good, more is better. When her back was turned, I poured a teaspoonful of the wonderful smelling treat and tasted it expectantly. I was shocked and dismayed. That’s grownup language for “my tongue tried to turn wrong-side-out.” Mom was right, and I couldn’t reconcile this dangerous substance that was bitter on its own but delicious in small amounts within a larger recipe. I have to admit that, even knowing what it tastes like, I’m still occasionally tempted to figure out some way to make my recipes “more vanilla.” There’s probably something wrong with that.

We need people who follow recipes, who get up every morning and do the same job over and over and are thrilled to do it well, like the security of it, and take pleasure in the steadiness of it all. We need risk-averse safety engineers. They are the foundation of our society, and they ensure that we have peace, that things get done, and that tried and true recipes are preserved. Conservatives in every aspect of our society protect valuable parts of who we collectively are. This is one of the people I have been while raising children, raising eyebrows at outlandish ideas, insisting on elbows off the dinner table, dragging fussy people to church, and harping about showers. I also let my babies nap in the sand box and homeschooled for nearly a decade. I am both a road less and more traveled sort of person because I think we need each. I think the danger is laughing at each other as fools, being unwilling to give everyone a place, and I’ve talked about that.

In our love for innovation, I think we pass over the immense contributions of people who don’t go about leaping off cliffs all the time to test the wind, who stay on the road and maintain it so that there are good roads to get us from place to place. If everyone took “the road less traveled,” there wouldn’t be roads. If everyone quit school universities would fail, so all of those who don’t are maintaining the road for those of us who do. It’s probably not the best parenting strategy to let your kids nap in the sandbox. With all the romance of what is “out there” – the vistas and the views and the breathtaking wonder – there’s little discussion of the downsides: briars, rocks, and scary beasts.

It’s frightening to be homeless. It’s discouraging to make a team uncomfortable because you point out a danger in a current direction. It’s hard to make people angry because you insist that it’s immoral to hide behind a law. It gets old being politically incorrect. It’s all well and good to be a disruptor, to embrace our innovators and independent souls, to have a few scattered about, but few of us like being disrupted. I doubt people who lost their jobs to the rise of Apple thought, in the short term, that it was a good thing. Briars. Rocks. Scary beasts. That people go off the beaten path and find them invites the truth that those things might make it onto the path at some point, the simple fact that those things are out there being threatening.

Certainly, disruptors are important to society. They innovate our technology, question our morals, push us to greater efficiency, protect us from devastating oversights, comment on elephants in rooms, and expose naked emporers. We like them, from safe distances, but they’re hard to live with up close. They make life difficult for public school teachers and bosses, and every time they do something different, we look at ourselves and wonder what was wrong with how it was being done – how we do it.

I’ve jumped out of quite a few perfectly good boats in my time. When I was in high school my principal once commented to a teacher that I and a friend (each of us presiding over student organizations) were the biggest troublemakers in the school. I can’t say I treasured that; I just wanted to join the Peace Corps. I’ve ridden with choices that didn’t turn out well, tackled things that I probably should have left alone. I’ve made “the principle of the thing” such a determining factor that I’ve acted in questionably wise ways, like moving my children cross- country to arrive friendless and homeless in a strange place. It was my path. It wasn’t the only path.

That makes people slap their foreheads, but I think it’s also an unspoken challenge. It doesn’t have to be.

We need a certain degree of tension between opposing principles, in our society, and in our souls. We need innovators and disruptors and people who have the courage to correct the emporer, but we also need people who throw a cloak of mercy around him and lead him out of the spotlight. We need to be all of those people, from time to time. We need to maintain our roads and our recipes, and call to one another from our relative positions on the path or navigating a possible vista. We need to be Edison’s wife, putting food on the table no matter what condition he may come home in, and we need to keep our perspective about all this creativity and innovation and independence.

So, here’s to all the people who make it worthwhile to step off the path because they stay on it – who listen to the tales of briars, rocks and scary beasts – who remind us that there is a road and that it’s going somewhere, and who believe us when we find a vista and want to come see too, once the path is sure. May we never forget how important they are in our sometimes silly quest to make everyone an adventurer.

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