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January 22, 2013

How difficulty nourishes creativity

Christian leaders are hemmed in at every turn with constraints and hindrances, wrapped tight in the unyielding coils of denominational, institutional and even personal histories. Faced with extraordinary challenges, they might wish to sweep away the old forms and limitations that dog their steps.

But this impulse, suggests Ian Leslie in “The Uses of Difficulty,” is a terrible mistake, because constraints are gasoline on the fire of human creativity. He documents just how inseparable are resistance and creativity, or, put differently, tradition and innovation.

Leslie canvasses human experience to flesh out his hypothesis that human thought is driven by difficulty. He observes the strange alchemy that brought the Beatles’ brilliant Abbey Road out of the primitive confines of that studio’s outdated recording technology. He notes the odd fact that test subjects bombarded with random numbers while attempting to decode anagrams actually “displayed greater cognitive agility: they were more likely to take leaps of association and make unusual connections.”

As Immanuel Kant put it, “The light dove cleaving in free flight the thin air, whose resistance it feels, might imagine that her movements would be far more free and rapid in airless space.” The enveloping difficulties that we think are hindrances are in fact the basic conditions of all thought. The challenges that lie in our path do not only block our way; by resisting us, they give us the traction we need to move forward.

James K.A. Smith recently extolled the “Gift of Constraints,” in an essay describing the beautiful designs crafted by a group of architects required to reproduce huge sections of an older building: “what might have been debilitating constraints became catalysts for creative innovation, issuing in a new appreciation for the wisdom of the constraints.” “Maybe,” Smith muses, “a ‘completely free hand’ is not what we need. Perhaps what we need are good constraints, and the imagination to receive them as gifts for innovation.”

Robert Frost famously quipped, “I'd no sooner writefree verse thanplay tennis with the net down.” Frost had meter; Christian leaders have budget shortfalls and funding stipulations or liturgical formulae and intractable congregations. Such difficulties offer the gift of rough ground against which we find traction to press forward to solutions, and learning to receive such resistance as a gift is the heart oftraditioned innovation.”

What are the most burdensome constraints of your work in ministry, and how might you re-imagine them as opportunities for innovation?

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