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Hope For the Fun of It | Memory of the Future Project
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Hope For the Fun of It


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by Rick Ingrasci M.D., M.P.H.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast. – Alexander Pope

 

I’m one of those people who takes “fun” seriously. When I look at the world’s troubles and what it’s going to take to get through these dark times and actually create a world that works for all, I think I may have stumbled upon a novel solution, or at least a necessary if not sufficient part of the answer.

 

I’ve coined a phrase to make my point: “If you want to create a new culture, throw a better party!” You’re probably thinking that I can’t possibly believe that we can party our way out of this mess, that I’m in denial at best and probably suffering from delusional escapist fantasies. It’s just a metaphor, but one that I believe contains a powerful truth about human creativity, and may in the end offer us a realistic path to a positive future. Here’s a rough outline of my case:

 

We live in a time when humanity has a much clearer picture of what doesn’t work than what does. We know that all life on planet Earth is interdependent, beautiful, and fragile. In terms of creating a just and sustainable future, we know that war and violence will not work, nor social and economic injustice… nor environmental destruction, unchecked global warming, rampant greed and consumerism, military empire, totalitarianism, fascism, fundamentalism, mass extinction, overpopulation, etc.

 

While the sheer number and complexity of our problems seems overwhelming, it just may be that this painful and scary breakdown of the old world order is a necessary stage in our evolution toward a healthy, viable planetary civilization. My strategy is to “play” to our innate strengths as a creative species, while letting go of our maladapted values, beliefs, and fear-based behaviors. The question is: “What is our essential nature as human beings? Who are we, and what do we have the potential of becoming?”

 

I don’t want to ignore or deny the dark side of our nature — evil exists. We’re obviously capable of horrendous, destructive, violent actions, but it’s clear to me that our salvation lies in the higher reaches of human nature. We have huge untapped capacities for love, compassion, kindness, altruism, transcendence, joy, play, and creativity, which, if developed to their maximum, can transform the world as we know it.

 

I truly find hope in the playful nature of our species. Human play tends to be joyful and fun, and it’s a big part of our lives throughout the life cycle. More importantly, play is at the heart of our creativity — it opens us to new possibilities, actually making us smarter and better able to adapt to our rapidly changing world. The latest scientific findings show that play, like nutrition and sleep, is a central element in determining an individual’s health, well-being, creativity and intelligence. The National Institute for Play believes that as play is woven into the fabric of social practices, we will dramatically transform our personal health, our relationships, the education we provide our children and the capacity of our society to innovate.

Anthropologists point out that throughout human history most cultures and tribes worked a little and played a lot. The desire for collective joy expressed through dancing, singing, feasting, celebration, festivity, games, and ecstatic religious ritual seems to be  at the heart of all human community. Mythic figures like Dionysus, Bacchus, Shiva, Krishna (among many others worldwide) were all fun-loving gods who could bring communities together to share in transcendent experiences, a feeling of being a part of a larger whole. Did I mention that the most enthusiastic participants in these rites were women and nature worshippers?

In “Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy,” Barbara Ehrenreich shows how the rise of social hierarchy (i.e. patriarchy) goes hand in hand with the rise of militarism and war — people who wanted to party all the time didn’t make very good soldiers because the evolving weaponry required disciplined armies. Social elites feared that collective festivities could undermine social hierarchies (which they often did). The suppression of traditional festivities reached its zenith with the rise of Calvinism and capitalism. All embodied pleasures were to be suppressed as sinful, and money and material wealth became our most cherished gods. The hedonic vision of community, based on egalitarianism and the joyous immediacy of human experience, gave way to the agonic reality of cruelly unequal and war-loving  societies… like our own.

In this context, the revival of the Dionysian in our time — e.g. the hippie culture of the 60s (sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll), carnival in Brazil, mardi gras in the US, sports spectacles, rave and hip hop youth culture, neopaganism, deep ecology, mass protest movements, etc. — can be understood as a healthy swing of the pendulum  away from the Apollonian warlike aspects of human culture. As Ehrenreich says, “Why not reclaim our distinctly human heritage as creatures who can generate their own ecstatic pleasures out of music, color, feasting, and dance? We are innately social beings, impelled almost instinctively to share our joy, and therefore able to envision, perhaps even create, a more peaceful future.”

If we shift the focus slightly and look at the role of art and creativity in human evolution, then the importance of play becomes even clearer. Artists explore our relationship to beauty, meaning, and purpose — they “play” with reality in ways that open up new possibilities, surfing the edges of the culture for clues to the mystery of life. Art theorist Ellen Dissanayake, author of “Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began”, has proposed that art, from an evolutionary standpoint, did not arise to spotlight the few “gifted” among us, but rather to summon the many to come join the parade. Art is a profoundly communal affair. Through singing, dancing, painting, storytelling, and otherwise engaging in what she calls “artifying,” people can be quickly drawn together, and even strangers persuaded to treat one another as kin. “Through the harmonic magic of art, the relative weakness of the individual can be traded up for the strength of the hive, cohered into a social unit ready to take on the world.” Her radical conclusion: art got its start in the intimate interplay of mother and child. “The tightly choreographed rituals that bond mother and child look a lot like the techniques and constructs at the heart of much of our art.”

We are living in a historical moment when our capacities for creativity and innovation are our best hope for a positive future. I believe that humans are happiest and most loving when they’re playing together, being creative together, or experiencing  beauty (or spiritual enlightenment!). These tend to be peaceful activities. Since we are naturally drawn to collective joy, the next question is “What are the conditions that make it possible for people to be playful, creative, and innovative?”

The latest research on emotional and social intelligence tells us that the urge to play does not emerge until a child feels safe and secure. Anxiety, anger, sadness, hunger, violence, abuse, etc., inhibit playfulness. A striking example I’ve seen of the capacity of children to rediscover play is through a program called The Power of Hope, started by Peggy Taylor and Charlie Murphy. In one-week summer camps, 40-50 teenagers from diverse cultures and economic backgrounds are joined by 20 creative, engaged adults—artists, activists, healers—to build a creative community where everyone learns to express themselves through the arts, develop deeper relationships, and reflect on the meaning and purpose of their lives. Many of the young people who attend Power of Hope programs have lived stress-filled lives. Through a combination of social support, appreciation, creative expression, and play, these teens become more relaxed, open, and happy. By the end of the week, the crusty alienated exterior, attributed to teens as their natural way of being, gives way to a more playful, easy-going, improvisational self.  Assessment of this program shows long-lasting effects in the development of empathy, self-esteem, and community engagement  on the part of young people.

The Power of Hope summer camps are one example of what I call “throwing a better party. “ Here’s another, more personal example: I’ve been convening a “better party” called the Hollyhock Summer Gathering (at the Hollyhock Retreat Center on Cortes Island B.C.) for over twenty years. Each summer, 70 - 80 friends and colleagues come together to create a heart-centered community for creative leaders who care about the world. We meet in a spectacular natural setting and play together for five or six days, addressing our deepest concerns and joys using a variety of formats (plenary sessions, ritual, meditation, open space workshops, parties, feasting, etc.) in a safe, supportive environment. The key to our success all these years has been the gentle, loving energy that rapidly forms in the group. Creative expression throughout is key. Similar to the Power of Hope camps, each evening we play using a different creative — theater games, storytelling, music and dance, or (my favorite!) an open mic talent show… the possibilities for creative play together are limitless. The summer gatherings are invariably nourishing, deep, and motivating. We all have a good time, we learn a lot from each other, new ideas emerge and numerous projects are generated. 

The Hollyhock Summer Gathering is a part of my vocation. My deep gladness is to serve the world through teaching, healing, and community development. My gifts include a sharp intelligence, a good heart, a whacky sense of humor, and a real desire to be creative and playful with everyone I meet. The fact that I’ve expressed my life purpose through holistic medicine, jazz, marriage and family, leadership development, community building, multimedia, co-founding holistic education centers like Hollyhock, and (currently) life coaching, probably isn’t an accident. These are the things that I have been drawn to from the inside out, or as the poet William Stafford says,

            “And things you know before you hear them - those are you,

Those are why you are in the world.”  — from Crossing Unmarked Snow

 

The gift that I most want to share with the world is my ability to “throw a better party” — to find creative ways to playfully increase the amount of love in the world. Creating egalitarian social spaces where diverse communities of people can actively participate in the fun-filled, playful creation of beauty and collective joy just feels like the right thing for me to be doing with my life.   I’d like to think that my efforts might contribute to an increase in loving kindness. I’m convinced that people will be attracted to this real possibility, and perhaps change their minds (and their way of living) and open their hearts. Time to send out those party invitations…!

One final important point: Creativity turns out to be directly related to economic growth. Some theorists believe that creativity is THE dominant force in today’s economy and society. In his best selling book “The Rise of the Creative Class… and How it’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, & Everyday Life,” urbanologist Richard Florida points out that the number of people doing creative work has dramatically increased over the past century (Note: the Creative Class includes people who principally do creative work for a living — e.g. scientists, engineers, artists, musicians, designers, knowledge professionals, etc). In 1900, fewer than 10 percent of American workers were doing creative work. By 1980, the figure was still less than 20 percent. But by the turn of the new century, the Creative Class included over one third of the workforce. And its growth is still accelerating.

Florida says “The wealth generated by the creative sector is astounding: It accounts for nearly half of all wage and salary income in the U.S., $1.7 trillion dollars, as much as the manufacturing and service sectors combined.” Think, for example, of all the young high tech billionaires whose wealth has been generated by innovative software and computer designs. Yet we’ve barely begun to tap into our creative potential as a species, and human creativity is virtually a limitless resource.

Without going into the details of his argument, Florida’s research shows that cities where the Creative Class are drawn to live and work contain the “3Ts” needed for a modern growth economy: Technology (measured by innovation and high-tech industry concentration), Talent (measured by the numbers of creative people), and Tolerance (because places that are open and tolerant have an edge in attracting different kinds of people and generating new ideas). When you look at the list of cities that are at the top of his Creativity Index (based on the 3Ts), you find San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Portland, Boston, Denver, Minneapolis… cities which are gay, immigrant and bohemian friendly. “The creative process flourishes in places that provide the broad ecosystem which nurtures and supports creativity and channels it into innovation, new firm formation and ultimately economic growth and rising living standards.” It’s where the better parties are… all over the world!

Communities that can attract the rapidly growing Creative Class will be the ones that lead us into the future, both socially and economically. In order to bring more people into the creative life, we need to think of creativity as a common good and maximize its development in the service of the whole world. And leaders will need to be art-full in creating work places and communities that maximize creative self-expression.  Using our newfound capacities for social networking and viral marketing, we can rapidly spread social inventions and cultural creativity, transforming our attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors in the direction of a more just and sustainable world.   

In summary, the dangers threatening life on earth are not visited upon us by any extraterrestrial power, satanic deities, or our preordained evil fate. They are “mind-made.” They arise from our own decisions, our own lifestyles, and our own relationships. And since they are made by the human mind, they can be unmade by the human mind. Therein lies our greatest hope: We have the power to change our minds. We have ready access to a plethora of psycho-technologies, creative group processes, and spiritual practices that can be used to catalyze a rapid change-of-mind, both individually and collectively. If we choose to pay attention to what matters most – raising healthy, happy future generations – then we will become the change we wish to see in the world. And we can have a good time doing it…

May it be so!