When I am reflecting on my life, I find the most pleasure in remembering moments with my children.
Let me pause to emphasize that I am limiting this assertion to my two as honest-to-god children, just beyond infancy. This is not a commentary on their adolescence, with late night calls from the police, or summons to meet with the vice-principal of the school where I was board chair. Those have another special place in my memory.
No, I’m thinking about their magical time as children, still fresh from the birth canal, before they have been shaped by parental and societal guidelines for “proper” behavior. I have photos, but more powerful, mental images of how their pure spirits lived, moved, and had their being in this wondrous place of God’s Garden, before the emphasis of being good, behaving properly cut into that natural, innate gift of joy and wonder. I can see it in both of their faces as I sit in my office, pounding out this article. The sheer joy, the expectant curiosity, the awe of discovery.
Two moments stand out. The first is one that I have written about before. It was my son at the age of three, coming to my study to ask me to take him outback to the “garden”. The garden was a formal springtime garden where azaleas were putting on a show that would put Disney to shame. The problem was that we had a pool in the middle. Mary and I both had warranted fears about children falling in before we could get them to swimming lessons at the Y that coming summer, The two doors that were inviting entrance into this fantasyland were both double-locked so that inquiring kids could not go without an accompanying adult.
When Thomas asked me to take him, I was in the middle of writing a piece of correspondence. His interruption distracted me and I asked him why he wanted to go outside. He looked up with an innocence long gone, “I want to see what God is doing.”
Checkmate. Off we went to the azaleas, the jasmine, the bees, the smells, ubiquitous pollen, and the birds. Paradise right in front of me and my son. Indeed, the Garden. That’s a powerful image that thankfully stays with me, more so these days as I have made more time for contemplative presence in the numinous world of nature. Simply being.
At about the same age, my daughter went with the Galloway entourage to the Wheeler Rodeo, just south of Tyler. It was the first time we went as a family: the four of us, my wife’s sister, Roz, in from Atlanta, plus my others two “sons”, Wynn and Turner Brown from across the street. It was, as they say in Texas, “a big time” and we had it in spades.
There’s nothing quite like an honest, down-home rodeo. Everybody had a great time from the opening parade of the American flag carried by a cowgirl mounted on a palomino, to the cowboy prayer asking the Almight to spare a moment to keep things safe, to the breakneck speed of barrel racing, and the piece-de-resistance, the bull riding. These “cowboys” were regular folks who worked at WalMart or a the grocery stores during the week, who grew up with rodeo, and get their fix on Saturday night. It’s a real as it gets, sometimes painfully so.
My daughter, Mary Glen, was fascinated by the animals, namely the livestock. Her normally large eyes were enlarged by wonder at all of the animals. I have two pictures of her that bring a daddy’s smile. One was when she saw her first Longhorn steer, causing her to strike a pose, her hands imitating the steers horns. And the other pose, has my entourage, standing in front of the Wheeler Rodeo sign, with Mary Glen poised in front, in a sassy side-pose with her cowgirl boots on, hands at her hips, looking like she was willing to take on the world. It sits on my desk to remind me of her spirit of which I am so proud. She just called me after getting back from a weekend trip to Cumberland Island, and I am reassured that her capacity for joy and wonder is intact.
Those are two of my favorite moments. But the paradigmatic story of my experience of my children took place with my first born. I was fascinated with Thomas’ development, having spent years working in the study and research of developmental psychology. Now, I got a chance to observe it up close and personal. The key moment was when I was sitting with him in our living room in East Atlanta. He had been prodigiously crawling for some time, but on this day, he decided to try to stand up. He pulled himself up by grabbing the side of the coffee table in our living room. And, in a flash, a revolutiion occurred. There he was, standing, holding himself up with one arm, the right if I am remembering correctly. He seemed to be enjoying this moment, or maybe that’s just my projection.
All of a sudden, I watched him let go of the table, and was standing on his own, listing a bit to starboard and then to port. It seemed like an eternity, but he finally leaned a bit forward, and then put his right leg out to catch his fall. It did not last long for his next step put him off balance and he sort of plopped unceremoniously in a pile. That’s one small step for a baby….and his/our world was transformed.
What I remember are two things. One, he was smiling, seemingly pleased with his experiment in motion, his first step. And second, I had a sudden insight that the act of walking is actually a controlled fall. One leans forward, trusting that one’s leg will be there to stop the fall. And then you do it again, and again, and again, as you walk. It was a “Eureka” moment for me.
It was odd that I had to learn that again in physical therapy, after my quad tendon tear and subsequent two surgeries. The atrophy in my legs after mandatory bed rest left me extremely weak. My physical therapist introduced a walker with which to begin my relearning, but then moved me to a cane, as I learned to walk again. My fear of falling was profound but the image of the controlled fall returned to my memory. I had to find that childlike trust and willingness to learn again. And the joy of recovered mobility, though limited, returned me to some child-like joy.
Allow me to take those moments, those windows into the childlike wonder and play into my current reality.
The sandbox that I play in these days is a group that meets every other week to study the process theology of Henry Nelson Wieman, a philosopher who lived after the first World War and into our Viet Nam era. The group has been made up of mostly old men, with a number of maverick ministers, priests, and shamans, a silly engineer from Flanders, a freshly-minted Old Testament PhD scholar, a Roman Catholic scholar from Poland…..a menagerie not of glass if ever their was one. We gather, after reading portions of Wieman’s work on a process called Creative Interchange, to see how we might promote its presence in our world that desparately needs transformation. And every so often, we break out and actually experience Creative Interchange in our gathering.
I spent a month of South of God articles trying to explain what Wieman thought about Creative Interchange. It is a vexing problem to try to briefly explain in a short article the blooming genius of a seminal thinker such as Wieman, but fools rush in…I gave it my best shot, trying to at least name the human attributes that mark the spirit of Wieman’s project, those being trust, curiosity, creativity, tenacity and authenticity. The basic process is four-fold, beginning with authentic communication, followed by appreciative understanding, moving then to synergetic integration, concluding with committed action for transformation. You may be thinking to yourself, this is describing perfectly the marvelous work of our current Congress! What’s the big deal?
Our current way of relating to one another is far from this process that Wieman is describing. Rather than appreciative listening, we bifurcated partisans hold one another in contempt before we even begin an attempt at dialogue. But as I catch a whiff of my own cynicism, I am reminded that Wieman himself was writing in the shadow of the rise of Nazi Germany and after the explosion of two devastating nuclear bombs. And yet, Wieman had the audacity and courage to forward the notion that the Creation and each of us is wired from birth for Creative Interchange.
Recently, as a part of our process in the group, we challenged one another to write a one-page description of this process. This is what one of out members put forth in the first paragraph: “Creative Interchange is a concept developed by Henry Nelson Wieman, a philosopher and theologian of the 20th century, which refers to the process of engaging in open and honest dialogue and collaboration in order to generate new and creative ideas that lead, when implemented correctly, to innovative solutions to problems.”
Not bad for a silly engineer from Flanders. Except it was not his. He had been listening to the hype of Artificial Intelligence, namely in the ChatGPT app that everyone is talking about. He “asked” it to write a one-page paper on Creative Interchange, and the product is what he forwarded to us without disclosing his devious Belgian plot! In our meeting, he “fessed up” to his caper, and we all got a good laugh. In theological gatherings like this, I “fess up” that I am always looking, searching, pining, for a good laugh. Thank you, Johan.
For me, one of the key aspects of Wieman is his concept of the creative self which is present in every infant, native to the territory of being human. This is the playful, the imaginative part of the human infant which is present at birth. The infant naturally explores his/her environment, looking with awe and wonder at the world around him/her. Ir sees connections, and senses connection to this world where he/she finds oneself. Jesus once said that if you want to see the realm of God, you must become like a child again to enter into that experience. I think he was talking about the creative self which can be recovered.
This is distinct from the created self which is what happens to children as they experience socialization, both from their parents and from the wider society. Psychologists talk about this in terms of the development of an ego, that is, a vehicle that gets you around in the society in which you experience pressure, sublte and forceful, to conform in your behavior, to be a “good” girl or “good” boy. We all handle this transition in different ways with the bottom line being survival, and an attempt to get what we want/need, such as acceptance, affirmation, love.
In this process, we construct a Persona, a mask, that presents our self to the world in such a way that gets us what we desire. That desire is what my colleague, John Scherer, says is our addiction. We have to “have” it, our fix. It can be as simple as “pleasing” the other, which becomes an addiction that severely truncates one’s growth and authenticity, as you spend your time and energy being a pleaser to others. Many professions are built around this simple need to please. Or your addiction can be more demanding, such an addiction to being “adored”, a malady that some ministers I know suffer from. My wife says that she knows one in particular.
This is a process that begins early as right/wrong are proffered as “the way things are”, most powerfully presented in the educational institution. It’s a duality that is taught and trained in us who live in the West. It’s a dichotomizing logic that drives our way of thinking and relating, the “in” and the “out”. It’s our way of parsing the world. We are socialized, and begin replacing the free creative self with the compliant created self. The creative self could be said to be put in cold storage, out of concern for one’s safety and survival. You simply can’t control that creative self.
Developmental psychology tracks the process from childhood, to adolescence, to young adulthood, to mid-life, late adulthood, and death. The created self, the ego, “manages” the transitions, secures the future, plans for retirement, while the creative self exists subterranean, sometimes whispering from the dungeon a faint reminder of joy and wonder. This often occurs in mid-life as one becomes pregnantly aware that the time you have left to live is less than what you have lived. This stark remembrance of our mortality has been said to drive spiritual longing, but often we quickly put it away as folly, just a passing fancy not worth our time or energy.
Wieman’s push is for a recovery of this creative self, even in the middle of our distraction of busyness. Again, he reminds us of our connection to the Creator, as our deepest identity, as sharing in creativity. He asks us to rediscover the ability to experience awe in our daily existence, to practice presence, “really being there” in the moment, rather than mailing it in, or doing our “routine”. He suggests that we have the capacity, innate, to return to our own creative self as we wonder at the mystery of this life we are living, a corrective for many of us who have opted for auto-pilot.
This recovery, which is what it is, takes courage. It demands piercing self-awareness, and an authenticity that may feel foreign, even threatening. But the promise is a recovery of the verve that was in your original self, curioius as to what is going on, fascinated by the possibilities, willing to explore, tenaciously grabbing the present moment to experience the fullness of being, not some pawned knock-off version meant to quiet you down. To recover the creative self- that is your mission, should you decide to accept it.
It’s February 2, Ground Hog Day, and I have come our of my hole in the ground, and I have seen my Shadow. And so, for the next few weeks, I will be diving deeply into this creative self and sharing with you my insight through this odd medium of a blog. I hope you will join me on the wave as I attempt to catch and ride it in joyful wonder. It’s a little scary. We might lose our balance and fall off. It’s a big ass wave, if you turn around a take a look. We might wipe out. But the ride seems exciting and fun.
2 thoughts on “Recovering the Creative Child”
Hats off David,
What a gift you are, and not only for our ‘sandbox’! Indeed, we play as children in that sandbox becoming as near as possible our Creative Self.
I discovered Henry Nelson Wieman, as you know, through another minister from Great Atlanta almost thirty years ago. And as an engineer, be it a silly one from Flanders, it took me a while to start understanding a tiny little bit of Henry Nelson Wieman’s philosophy. I was helped by my third ‘father’ Charlie and Cedric, another member of our so-called Wieman Group. Through Cedric I got a copy of Man’s Ultimate Commitment. Although it is perhaps his most understandable writing (for the SiBeEng I am), it was perfect to fall asleep at night during my daily attempt to read some pages of that extraordinary book.
Slowly and surely, it dawned on me that Henry Nelson was writing about an innate natural process of learning and transforming that is, at the same time, inhibited through what Charlie Palmgren describes as the counter process: the Vicious Circle. Indeed, in learning to live that process, through socialization, as you write rightly, we create our own masks and construct a Persona. For one or other reason (and luckily for us, David), some ladies see through the mask our Original Self, like a Mary you know in particular (and whom figures in a lot of the Bosses songs). BTW, it’s a real pity that our Wieman Group has only one female member, albeit that Margaret is extraordinary.
I learned over the years that the Creative Self is gifted with Awareness, the Antony de Mello way of being Waken Up! And that the created self has to do with consciousness, which I call colored awareness, making from the Creative self ‘both, and & different from’ a created self ‘either, or’.
I’m looking forward to your next blogs when you will be diving deeply into this creative self, which I often call, for obvious reasons, the Original Self. I for myself are striving for a quarter of century by now to recover my Original Self and I often find myself on the canvas (The Boxer being one of my favorite songs of Paul Simon). Every time I rise strong again (thank you Brené Brown). And yes, I know, I’ll never reach my destiny and … isn’t the traveling more important than that destiny? I love to believe that, since my time left is shortened every day.
Adopting the mindset of Henry Nelson Wieman I understood what Jesus once said: If you want to see the realm of God (= Creative Interchange for HNW) you must become a child again to enter that experience. It’s like learning to walk again, you dare to ‘fall’ forward, having the openness to be Authentic, since you have trust in Creative Interchange.
It’s February 2, ‘Maria Lichtmis’ in Flanders (Candlemas in your part of the world, I guess); the ‘patronal festival’ of my alma mater (Catholic University Leuven) and the day that, in Flanders, baking pancakes is mandatory! Bon Appetit, David!
Johan, what a gift you have been and are to me. It’s good to have surfing buddies as we ride this wave. I so appreciate your courageous journey into the whirlwind and your gift of trying to make Creative Interchange actionable. David