I’ve never felt more useless than during covid. In my country, there ws a time when every Thursday evening everybody lined up outside to applaud health workers. Quite rightly, we recognised their bravery and heroism in frightening circumstances.
I kept wishing I could concretely help, and I found myself pondering paths not taken, like one where I trained as a doctor. Wherever my thoughts took me, I kept encountering a familiar feeling: the sense that I’m lacking something important.
Recently I was in a Zoom chat with an online mental health group. Each week, one member shares their story and afterwards we all chat about it.
This particular week the story was about how the teller’s creative side had been stifled as a child and how they’d spent a lifetime learning to re-embrace it. She’d been told at a very young age that she was uncreative, and she’d absorbed this so deeply it had been part of her identity for decades. It was only now, in her forties, that she realised just how wrong that belief was.
I’ve only ever met her in her current incarnation as an extremely creative person. Watching her churn out poetry and videos and homemade art, it’s impossible to comprehend how she could ever have believed that she was essentially uncreative.
Except… it isn’t impossible, because I’ve been there too. It is always possible to find a way in which something is lacking. I can imagine criticising everything I could possibly make, for one reason or another. A perfectly tragic poem isn’t very cheerful. A happy poem is too light. A delightful family video is “just fluff.” A powerful dramatic video is too harsh.
No creation is ever all things, so we can always find a way in which it is lacking.
My life, too, is only ever one thing. Sometimes that one thing contains many: right now, I’m a writer-comedian-developer. But no matter how many “manys” I add, I can always find something I lack.
During covid, I lacked “life-saving.” Should I train as a doctor? Become the world’s first writer-comedian-developer-doctor…?
But what about after that? I bet there’ll be something else I’m missing then…
The one constant in my ever-evolving life is that whatever I do I can find a way in which I’m lacking.
In the Zoom chat, my friend talked about those lost decades, and how she regretted all the books she’d failed to write during them.
But after they finished, another member reframed this: “You’re thinking in terms of output, but I know you, and your creativity is just who you are. Your existence, the way you live your life, the effect you have on other people… all of this is also creativity, even if you haven’t written all the books you imagined you could have by now. You inspire others in everything you do.”
I loved this. She’d thought it was essential to express her creative side in a specific way, but her friend’s comment freed her. Her very essence meant that everything she did was somehow creative. This was the precise antidote to her childhood absorption of the idea that she was essentially uncreative. She could see herself as essentially creative to her core.
With this belief, it’s impossible to see her life as lacking. (Not that anyone else did, of course, but she had her own regrets.) She simply had to live her life as best she could, and creativity would flow naturally.
I might not be out there saving lives with medical treatment, but I know that if I were, I’d find something else that I lack. Whatever I do, I could always be doing more.
Perhaps instead of chasing my perceived deficiencies, I could stop believing my life CAN be lacking. Whatever my friend does, she is essentially creative. Perhaps I’m essentially complete, whatever I do.
Perhaps we’re all complete, and we’re just choosing how best to express it.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.