The logic of choosing life

A sophomore from Duke called me this week and asked if she could interview me for a mock newspaper article she was writing for a public policy class.  I’d met with her a few times this summer as part of a program for students interning at various Seattle non-profits.

Now back at school, her professor had asked the class to pick someone interesting to interview.   She said our conversations about creativity, education and systems change had really struck a chord, and she had more questions.

“Why the arts?” she asked.  She said at most universities the push is for everyone to graduate with ‘bankable’ degrees in economics, technology, the sciences.   She cited a Forbesarticle suggesting the logic of less liberal arts and more “practical” curricula given economic realities.  She knew I’d navigated the same system of education she was in now, but somehow broke out of the matrix and pursued a less conventional path related to the arts, creativity, and culture.

Why the arts indeed.  Fresh out of college, the arts barely registered for me.  Twenty-five years and much life experience later, I’ll concede to more wisdom.

On the phone that day, I said that when we apply ourselves to the more amorphous disciplines of art, literature or philosophy, we breed a stronger tolerance for ambiguity, essential for living and leading well, now and always.

We also develop a fluency in self-reflection, since to interpret or create anything worthwhile in these realms demands a self-honesty not required in the world of clear-cut answers and right and wrong.

Taken further, I believe tolerance for ambiguity and self-honesty are the linchpins to transforming our broken systems of education, government, justice and economics to better reflect the humanity they were designed to serve.  They are simply not working for too many of us.

Big claim eh?  How’d I make such a leap? Experience, primarily, anchored in a heavy dose of common sense.

As a newly-minted political science major from Duke, I thrived on clear-cut answers, on certainty.  Armed with the rules of the game and a logically trained mind, I acquired positions, resources, external validation.  And then, a malignant tumor in my left breast.   Absolutely nothing I’d learned in 16 years of schooling had prepared me for cancer at thirty. Knowing the rules of the game and having a logical mind was entirely irrelevant.

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As I set out to retrace my steps, I realized I’d gotten lost in a sea of expectations and values not my own.  My adherence to certainty and structure was so rigid I’d lost any balance.  While I appeared successful from the outside, my inner world was a tempest.  So I approached my illness as an invitation to introspection.  And this is how I found my way back to life and health.

Introspection, and the space it requires, made room for me to breath, for depth and new ideas, for creativity and transformation.  I needed fewer rules, more open pasture.  From this space, I imagined and built the foundation for Arts Corps, a thriving, nationally recognized arts education program, whose mission is to foster creative habits of mind that include tolerance for ambiguity and self-refection.

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A decade later, I felt the discomfort that precedes change, and it was a pulse I could not ignore.  Leaving Arts Corps to grow on its own, I took another look under my hood and found more broken valves and corroded parts.  As I became more honest with myself, I saw how many choices I still made out of fear, how many versions of life I was still living not my own.

Slowly but surely, a north star emerged.  Politics called me back, and I brought my experience and understanding of tolerance for ambiguity and self-reflection to the people working within the public sector, facilitating healthier, more cohesive teams.

I had no set methodology, but a clear hypothesis.  If everyone within a group had access to their innate creative agency and power, and understood how to interact more seamlessly with everyone else from that place, then the culture of government could move from one marked by stagnation and disparity to one brimming with innovation.

Four years later, here’s what I observe:  When the human beings inside of institutions are allowed time for self-reflection, and leadership at all levels tolerates the ambiguity that comes with sharing power across hierarchy, there is more life.  There is more vitality and expansion.  More creativity and healthy conflict.  More equity and trust.

Without the capacities to tolerate ambiguity or self-reflect, I observe the opposite.  More denial and repetition.  More disparity and abuse.  More destructive conflict and contraction.

Yes, I’ll say it again.  The systems we’ve created to support life don’t work for too many of us.  We can jigger all we want with the levers and pulleys–the policies, procedures, and organizational charts–but we’ll only be inching our way forward, if at all.  It’s the humans in the room, and our capacity for aliveness and creativity, who can actually transform the systems from the inside out.

Why the arts, she asked me.  Simply put, it’s the most life-affirming strategy we have.

Life.  Nothing else really makes as much sense.

(All Illustrations copyright David Laskey 2012)

Lisa Fitzhugh