About a month ago, while reading Elder Eyring’s First Presidency message in the February Ensign, I was struck—and stricken—by his admonition to be less selfish: “The Lord taught us that when we are truly converted to His gospel, our hearts will be turned from selfish concerns and turned toward service to lift others as they move upward to eternal life.”
Parenthood has cured some—but not nearly all—of my selfish propensities, but I struggle with ways to be more selfless, particularly as a writer. In the intervening month, I’ve wrestled with the question: how can I be both increasingly selfless *and* creative? As a writer, I have to carve time for myself—time away from my husband, my children, from other people I could be serving. Much of my creative energy gets spent in pursuits that appear, on the surface, to be selfish.
We’re told repeatedly to develop our talents. My own talent for writing is one I feel prompted to pursue. And yet I still struggle with guilt, with the feeling that my creative needs are not only an indulgence, but a selfish one at that.
I’m (slowly) coming to believe that my problem is two-fold: part of my problem stems from a cultural conditioning, particularly of women. And part of it stems from a too-narrow understanding of creativity.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Writing For Charity conference put on at the Provo Library. In a panel on balancing work and family, Shannon Hale argued that writers—women particularly—need to give themselves permission to write. While the members of the panel were unanimous in saying that their family was their most important priority, they pointed out that the societal expectation that women (particularly mothers) subsume all their own needs to those around them can be devastating and unhealthy.
In a powerful talk on “Wisdom and Order,” Elder Maxwell pointed out that even the Savior occasionally took time away to recharge before he could serve. Being unselfish is not the same thing as being self-less. If we give everything, we may have nothing left to give.
In addition, creativity is more than just the product of our labors. Part of my struggle reconciling creativity and unselfishness is, paradoxically, the dictum that we need to develop our talents in the service of God. As a writer, I might spend hundreds (even thousands) of hours on a work that very few people see. If I value creativity only by what I produce–and the service that product renders–then the time to output ratio appears selfish.
Luckily, I don’t think God expects us to develop creative talents just to share them—though sharing is part of the service to which we put our gifts.
The act of creation itself can—if we do it right—bring us closer to God. Once again, Elder Maxwell expresses it perfectly:
While true creativity is something that can be shared by those who appreciate the works of creation, true creativity does not depend entirely for its satisfactions upon ‘consumers.’ It is a highly personal experience in which we are grateful to the Lord for helping us to see beauty and truth and the order of things, for restructuring our understanding of things, if necessary, to accord with things “as they really are” (Jacob 4:13).(“Creativity”)
Not only does creativity help us appreciate the beauty of our world, but it gives us deeper insight into that world. In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle writes,
the artist who is a Christian, like any other Christian, is required to be in the world, but not of it. We are to be in this world as healers, as listeners, and as servants.
In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.
We write, we make music, we draw pictures, because we are listening for meaning, feeling for healing. And during the writing of the story, or the painting, or the composing, or singing and playing, we are returned to that open creativity which was ours when we were children. . . . An artist at work is in a condition of complete and total faith (55).
I think we forget—or at least, I do—that one of God’s defining roles was that of Creator. As children of God, that creativity is part of our birthright: “The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul. . . . Our birthright—and the purpose of our great voyage on this earth—is to seek and experience eternal happiness. One of the ways we find this is by creating things.” (Elder Uchtdorf, “Happiness, Your Heritage”)
Of course, creativity can be selfish, when we pursue it at the expense and exclusion of all else, when we use our creative needs as an excuse not to serve in other areas. But as C. S. Lewis argues in his essay “Learning in Wartime,” “The intellectual [I would add, and creative] life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us.”
How do you reconcile your own creative pursuits with the injunction to serve others? How do you balance creativity with unselfishness?