The world is in a high state of social conflict, which often plays out as digitally clashing political ideologies. But could our lives of perpetual creativity and self expression also be playing a role in rising social fractiousness?
One of Viktor Frankl’s most striking ideas in Man’s Search for Meaning is that suffering is relative.
Having survived World War II’s concentration camps, Frankl uses the sharp analogy of gas filling a chamber: no matter how much gas there is, it will fill the chamber completely. He suggests that even though we experience our hurts from very different baselines, both a concentration camp survivor and Britney Spears can reasonably say of themselves that they have suffered.
In his words, ‘the “size" of human suffering is absolutely relative.’
I’ve been toying recently with applying the same construct to creativity.
We’re all famous now. Social media means most plugged-in humans create stories, share them, and manage the resulting interactions on a daily basis. Full time creativity is no longer a lucky career choice – it’s a global lifestyle.
Our instinct says that as you receive more public recognition the emotional rewards of creativity increase on a sliding scale. Thus millions of likes equate to emotional fulfilment.
But if we apply Frankl’s gas analogy, there’s a case to be made that ultimately Beyonce will experience the same kind of emotional slump from a million fewer likes than usual as I do when I get ten vertical thumbs instead of twenty on a poem I posted.
Which is another way of framing a simple truth celebrities through the ages have told us: fame ain't what it’s cracked up to be. The same celebrities will also tell us that while a life of perpetual creativity may or may not feature positive public recognition, it almost always involves the complex and clashing fizz of trolls, fans, feedback and disinterested silence.
Social media platforms are specifically designed to hook us with a never-ending string of flashing emotive cues. They are effectively slot machines of the creative soul. Frankl’s gas analogy reveals that - as with any casino-like environment, and contrary to how operating within the system feels - you don’t need to be a ‘winner’ to emerge on the right side of the system. You need a strong personal emotional management technique.
Whether we create and distribute our stories powered by casual irony or intense self-awareness, and regardless of the ‘size’ of our base of followers and friends, the process is highly emotionally charged. It can lead to joy and new social connections, but also to cycles of depression, anger and alienation.
Yet how many of us have a coherent method through which we manage the emotions involved in ceaseless personal storytelling, feedback and self analysis?
A corollary: as left and right wings continue to bash up against each other, I increasingly wonder how much of the (clearly very deep) anger is ideological, and how much has to do with the steady build up of explosive feelings that result when one shares personal stories with the world a hundred times a day.
My view is that relentless personal creativity is at least somewhat involved in the soaring confrontational temperature of our current social world, and that as much as parents and educators seek to guide and shape their charges morally and ideologically, they should also be working hard with the young'uns to develop the technique necessary to manage a life of perpetual creativity.
What does it mean for a human to create a story, and share it? What are we seeking emotionally from the narratives and images we’re pushing so fast into the world? How can we manage the feedback other people give us on our ideas? When – and how – should we listen and revise, and when not?
If our kids understand how to approach these questions, their chances of side-stepping an adult life of binary ideological conflict could be significantly improved.
Andrew Miller, 28 January 2021