You say crisis, I say creativity. You say problem, I say a sea of new solutions that would have never come about had it not been out of necessity. Not all is bad when life turns us upside down: we’d risk saying it’s that new, unknown side that, so often, turns out to be the right one.
“In the face of a radical crisis, when the old way of being in the world, of interacting with others and with the kingdom of nature doesn’t work anymore, when survival is threatened by apparently non-transposable problems, one way of individual life – or a species – will either die, become extinct, or overcome the limitations of its condition through an evolutive leap.” Known by many as the author, by excellence, of bestsellers that have as a main theme spiritual enlightenment, as is the case for The Power of Now (1997), Eckhart Tolle, pseudonym of Ulrich Leonard Tolle (Germany, 1948), is a writer and conference speaker that dedicated all his life to the study of human existence and how it can be much softer than what it appears to be. The quote aforementioned, of his authorship, doesn’t come from, however, a particularly beautiful place, nor even a merely literary one. Nor through some sort of enlightenment that decided to grace the author for no apparent reason. Being a researcher and supervisor at Cambridge University right after he graduated from the University of London, Tolle told The Independent that, at 29-years-old, after many depressive episodes, he went through a deep spiritual transformation, which dissolved his old identity and changed the course of his life in a rather radical manner.
The turning point happened one morning when he woke up with a feeling of utter dread; that was not the first time he had had a panic attack, but it seemed to him that, surely, that was the strongest one yet – due to the profound aversion he felt for the world, and mostly, for himself. The questions he asked himself were something along the lines of: “What’s the point of continuing to live with the weight of this anguish?” or “What’s the point of carrying on fighting?” Questions that resurged alongside a deep eagerness to self-destruct, to stop existing, becoming even strong than the will to live itself. Face to face with an overwhelming desire for death, it was on that instant that the German author witnessed his own metamorphosis, to the evolution towards another level of his being. Confronted with the thought of suicide, without any perspective of maintaining his existence and with the light at the end of the tunnel as extinct as a broken lightbulb, the transformation happened. Standing on the edge, Eckhart Tolle found wings to fly. High. And from a moment of crisis, a new man was created. Would the author ever go through that critical moment if it would mean he would become the man he is today? We’d risk saying he would. As Fernando Pessoa wrote in his poem book Mensagem: “To go beyond Bojador one must go beyond the pain.”
The reason why “necessity is the mother of invention” is something way more trivial than what one could have thought from the beginning: “In a context of survival and scarcity, physiological resources tend to be recruited more frequently and with higher magnitudes, in an adaptive way. It’s legitimate to think that in a situation of deprivation (for example, social deprivation caused by the measures in an attempt to contain the COVID-19 pandemic), mental resources, especially creativity, are no exception to that rule, since they’re called precisely to fulfill that role – the one of helping us survive the social isolation by finding ways to think and act that may, somehow, compensate for the lack of informative and social resources, the more scarce human and mental interaction, amongst others. In other situations of scarcity, for example, when it comes to food, shelter, etc., creativity is the key to unlock survival solutions that lie beyond anything considered as normal in a context of abundance.” These are the words of Miguel Remondes, neuroscientist, investigator at the Instituto de Medicina Molecular João Lobo Antunes and auxiliar professor at the Medical School of the University of Lisbon. As he himself has explained, life and its circumstances always show – whatever way that is – that necessity really does feed onto creativity. When we find ourselves in a situation of comfort, we’ll hardly be pushed to the creative field. After all, why reinvent anything when everything is fine (apparently) as it is? In the same way that Eckart Tolle looked death straight in the eye and, due to that scenario, was reborn from the ashes to stand as the author we know today, human beings, generally speaking, also have that ability of rediscovery and reinvention of reality. And of finding, quite possibly, a brand-new world inside themselves or in their surroundings. “Creativity is defined, firstly, from a mental and behavioral point of view. Creative people tend to interpret, describe and predict their surrounding reality in unusual ways. Which we usually call ‘thinking outside the box’. They identify more frequently relations in between elements that apparently unrelated, draw conclusions based on those same relations, which ends up informing their predictions and imagination. For these reasons, they tend to produce intellectual constructions that seem unusual and surprising to society in general”, Miguel Remondes explains.
Ordinarily, we look at creative people as these alternative beings that dress a certain way and have a certain lifestyle, and we reduce them to an ocean of clichés that rarely correspond to reality. Creativity doesn’t necessarily have a profile, it’s more about looking at life in a lateral way. In a documentary broadcasted by Netflix, The Creative Brain, Michael Chabon, writer and winner of a Pulitzer, describes this conception very well: “Originality seems fake to me. I don’t see any point in it. There was never any originality to begin with. It’s within the interaction with the conventional that originality is born. The way I see it, it’s not about rejecting the conventional…” Edson Athayde, a Brazilian publicist who has been established in Portugal for about three decades and has won over 900 prizes as a creative publicist, confirms this theory: “I believe that creativity is something that comes with practice, it’s hardly passed on from generations. If I stop thinking creatively, if I stop reading, watching movies, traveling, learning about other cultures, sooner or later I’ll stop thinking laterally, and my brain will be stuck”, he assures. “Brain wise, we know very little, but studies of cerebral imagery during creative processes and free association of ideas, tend to demonstrate that there is added activation of the associative cortex region, precisely in the area that allows us to construct and associate concepts and representations from individual perceptive elements, and create abstract concepts. This added activation might be in the origin of behavioral and mental phenomena alluded before: a better ability to associate concepts and ideas in original and unique ways”, the neuroscientist Miguel Remondes corroborates. Given these assumptions, it’s understandable that creativity is not part of a monopoly belonging to people who are simply born creative, but to those who are able – and have the brain – to develop lateral thinking. The same thought that can take someone from a pattern situation and place them somewhere else, as a kind of vehicle. That way, even someone with a less developed right brain side (the creative thinking one), can work towards reaching better creativity levels. Edson Athayde explains that “working out” the creative mind is a “constant fight, equivalent to a high-performance athlete though dedicated to seeing and hearing a lot in order to synthesize all that goes on in the world and transforming it into a persuasive speech. The mind of a creative publicist should be some sort of parabolic antenna of mass culture at all times.” Meaning, it’s not about waiting for lightning to strike or for the unexpected breeze of a new idea to come to our ears. Creativity is a matter of looking to the world with our eyes wide open, and unlimited to what the world is showing us in its first dimension. Creativity is using what’s around us (and not on some other unknown planet) to create new concepts. New shapes. New perspectives. A big part of creativity is creating something extraordinary out of the ordinary. If pressured by a moment of crisis, all the better. In parallel, adapting to a new scenario and transforming it into a learning curve demands a lot from what we know today as emotional intelligence. The term refers to human beings’ ability to learn how to deal with their own emotions – using it to their own benefit, especially in moments of crisis.
The restorative power of creativity also comes from places apparently lacking in it. As is the case for prisons. In those hope-forsaken places, where those who end up there are reduced to their worst actions in life, is also where – for everyone’s amazement – a colossal creative potential was found. Firstly, the daily struggle for survival forces the inmates to reinvent themselves permanently. Every waking minute counts when the goal is to get out of there alive and, if possible, without any major incidents. John (fictional name) was incarcerated for seven never-ending months in a penitentiary facility in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for drug traffic. He doesn’t consider himself a criminal, if anything, he is someone who, one day, acted on a very bad idea. Unfortunately, from the inside of a prison, indole doesn’t count for much. Everyone is the same and treated as such. Creativity inside a cell is an asset – it’s the everyman for himself equivalent around there: “Anything (which is very little) will do: milk cartons become clotheslines; to heat coffee, amongst other things, we use the metal of clothing clips that need to be enough to go from the outlet to the bucket which should contain water and Omo soap or salt, needed for the water to boil (otherwise the bucket will overheat and the water won’t heat up); there’s also tattoo guns that work by blowing onto the plastic case of ballpoint pens; workout weights made out of plastic bottles tied up to broomsticks… Then, everything in jail works on a cigarette pack basis, those are the ‘currency’ inside…”, he told Vogue. Having on through what they’ve been through, the ex-cons have something to offer that comes from a perspective very few understand. The perspective of someone who has had to fight to stay alive every second of every day and that was left with nothing but the need to reinvent themselves. It’s either that or dying – whether physically, whether spiritually. Furthermore, studies proved convicts who participate in programs based on creativity have 80% fewer chances of relapsing into crime. Given that, we come to a point when it’s worth asking the following question: is it possible that not all is bad when it comes to a crisis?
Looking at the cup half full – because it’s important to train our mind to see it that way, in a world that is overflowing with unpredictability – a crisis can lead one to discover sides of oneself they never knew were there. All that’s left is to remember, for example, when in the middle of the Second World War, women began to need to wear pants – literally – because their husbands left for battle and someone had to handle things at home. Were women at all prepared, or even imagined, that they might have to roll up their sleeves and start working, to take control of their lives, and those of their immediate relatives? Probably not. Was that a huge step towards the independence of those very same women, and all those to come? Undoubtedly so. No matter how difficult it may seem, the truth is if we are not pushed by feelings such as despair, fear, pain, or, last but not least, need, we’ll hardly leave the comfort of the bubble we’re so used to living in. It’s not by chance that we’ve watched, within the current state of affairs – economists consulted by the Wall Street Journal predict that the unemployment rate in the US will hit its highest point ever, at 16,1% in April – to countless cases of people who found themselves being forced to reinvent their careers. Marco Antão is a highly regarded Portuguese DJ, better known as Switchdance, who saw his professional activity be completely discarded for obvious reasons. In an interview with SIC he confessed that, right now, he is selling chamuças and that, even though he never thought that would ever happen, he’s having “a great time” with his new way of making a living. It takes an optimistic spirit and an open mind to see opportunities in times of crisis. It’s paramount that we think laterally. Or else, we can sum up all this roll of words with the advice of the master in martial arts, Bruce Lee: “Be water, my friend”. Because just like water can move through different stages, and be mutable, adapting to any recipient, so would we, human beings, win, if only we accepted the lightness of letting it flow.
Translated from the original article of Vogue Portugal's Creativity issue, published in March 2021.