There is mysterious soulful glory in a community of artists. When you gather with people whose mission it is to manifest the unity between ethereal beauty and true holiness, magic happens. Conversations are spun out of real joy and gentle criticism and intangible dreams that may yet become reality. I’ve joined an Arts Guild. It is the most encouragement my writing has seen in years.
I used to worry that I didn’t think very original thoughts. All my ideas were old; they felt spoon-fed and recycled. I wanted to think fresh things but I didn’t know how. I was envious of the people who seemed to think of new wonderful things without effort; the people who could think a thought and write an essay and paint a picture without stagnating in the same repeated ideas. The ease of their intelligent communities frustrated me. How could I get there? Why was it so hard to think things?
I wanted more of this originality; if not my own, then to sit in on theirs. “They” was non-specific. Podcast hosts who somehow had new ideas every week. Writers whose words were fresh and thoughtful. Friends whose conversations seemed alive and interesting. I remember a conversation I once had about insecurity with a close friend. I don’t usually get intimidated by people who are better than me, she said, I think of them as examples. I can learn a lot from how they work. I have struggled with that idea for years, honestly. Envy is often my default reaction to excellence. I wish I didn’t think that way so often and I’m working hard to change it, but that used to be my default mode of thinking.
So this summer I began trying to change. If I couldn’t bring forth my own original ideas, the next best thing I could do was listen to them, immerse myself in them. So I kept listening to the podcasts. I even found more good speakers to listen to. I read the blog posts and essays that seemed beyond any aspiration of my own skill – perhaps they would rub off on me. I spent time with people who entertained big ideas and philosophies. At least I could learn from them.
I began to lean into knowledge instead of begrudging those who had it. And slowly, I learned: we become like those we surround ourselves with. The more I listened to these original conversations, the more original thoughts and ideas I began to have. I realized that my own mind could generate ideas, craft thoughts and story lines, put together questions and answers in new ways. I was learning how “to be governed by [my] admirations rather than [my] disgusts…” (Henry Van Dyke). It is a beautiful place to be.
I might not ever be able to shake my old habit envying everyone who is better than me. It’s a horrible vice that brings a twinge of shame every time I think of it. But I am learning more and more how to think differently. When envy creeps in, I try to pick out a few things I can learn from somebody else’s success. I look for all the ways that artists and writers and thinkers I admire are reaching back, holding out their hands and ideas to bring the rest of us forward. They share selflessly and I want to learn selflessly.
I am finally seeing that originality does not cohabitate with isolation. Just as giving gifts and having less brings spontaneous joy, so sharing ideas and relying on others for thoughtful community cultivates our own original thoughts and ideas. May we live into this paradox of artistic friendship with joy and generosity.