Why Shame Stifles Creativity and How to Unwrap the Gift of Curiosity
Over the past week, Cindy and I have been staying in the Marais district of Paris, wandering around, living like locals. Perhaps, because I have more time on my hands than usual, when something has come up that I didn’t understand, I’ve taken the time to either look it up or to think it through until I do understand it. Just one small example is seeing the word “bienvenue” everywhere and realizing that I din’t know what it meant.
It turns out that “bien” means good and that “venue” means arrival; so “bienvenue” means welcome. I’m sure that I learned this in my four years of French study that I completed when I was in my teens. Also, amazingly, the English word “venue” is clearly right there, unchanged, as its original French word “venue”: the feminine past particle form of the French verb venir, to come. It’s a French verb that congealed into an English noun.
We’ve been thinking a lot about French words. As we were about to cross the street, my friend Dago, who is French, suggested that we “traverse,” and it led to a discussion of this French word. While very commonly used in French, “traverse” is a much less frequently used word in English, tending to form part of a more educated and extensive vocabulary. We discussed how after the Norman invasion of Briton, the ruling class spoke primarily French and the peasants spoke primarily old English. I knew about this before, but only in the context of the names for meats: cow meat is called beef (du boeuf in French); pig meat is called pork (porc in French); sheep meat is called mutton (mouton in french).
I think back to those years of studying French in school and remember how disinterested I was in learning, how dismissive I was of the teacher. Now, in Paris, I’m so curious about everything. I love the culture and the people. I love being in France and in Paris. Every time I return to this great country, I learn more and I feel more at home here. A couple of days ago, Cindy and I went on an amazing bicycle tour of Versailles with Boutique Bike Tours. The hosts, Stu and Niki, provide such a fun and well-organized tour that it so conducive to learning. We discovered so much about French history and the reins of King Louis XIV (the fourteenth; the Sun King) through King Louis XV (the fifteenth; the Beloved), to King Louis XVI (the sixteenth; the last King).
I wish I could speak with my french teacher from school and apologize for not paying attention in class and for not utilizing her lessons. I remember how passionate she was about France and I remember how I didn’t appreciate it. Now I understand why she liked France so much, and I feel sad that I was not able to benefit from her passion. Not many teachers love their subject so much that they immerse themselves into it like she did.
When I was about eight years old, I lived close to a store that sold reclaimed parts from discarded electronic devices, things like circuit boards and screens. Thinking back on it now, I don’t know who their customers would have been since most people would have considered it useless junk. At the time, I wanted to make electronic devices, but I didn’t have the right tools or parts. One day, I found a small numeric keypad in a pile of junk at the store. I wanted to use it as the input control for a device that I intended to make. I remember wanting to buy it for five pounds, which was equivalent to about fifteen pounds in today’s money.
I went to an adult parental figure and asked for the money to buy this keypad. He seemed annoyed and said, in a derisive tone, “Don’t you want to go to the park and have an ice cream with me instead?” I remember feeling embarrassed of my desire for this keypad, as if I had some kind of shameful perversion. I probably quietly and honestly responded “no” to the ice cream question and wandered off in confusion, wondering what was wrong with me and stuffing down my desire to innovate.
Now I understand that this adult’s reaction to my request for funding had nothing to do with me. He didn’t understand my inspiration. He was not interested in learning about what was happening in my world. My best understanding is that he simply took my request personally. This little kid was more interested in expressing himself through technological creativity than in spending quality time with an abusive narcissist.
I don’t blame him. I would have done the same thing if I had been him. He wasn’t being malicious in any deep sense. He was simply ignorant, unaware, and wrapped up in his own pain. I went on to teach myself how to program, to study electronic engineering, to design and create computer chips and systems, and to express my creative impulses extensively.
But I still feel ashamed of my interest in technology. I still find myself steering away from learning and growing in this area. My passion and creativity still tend to be throttled.
I’ve been hearing and reading the phrase “be yourself” for what seems like decades, but only in the past few days have I mustered the courage to really question what that might mean. My default assumption was that it’s not possible to be anyone but myself: whoever I am being, that’s who I am.
I’ve been thinking about this more deeply and welcoming a richer understanding of it. What does it mean to truly be myself? It must mean that I am the same person in public as I am in private, and even the same person in private as I would wish to be if I were able to fully acknowledge, validate, and encourage my interests.
Producing this very article that you are reading right now required me to prioritize this practice of expressing myself in writing, a process that I deeply enjoy participating in but which I tend to invalidate and shame. The content of this article is my attempt to most accurately chart the territory of my inner world using my tools of English vocabulary and grammar. Each of these words is like a piece of a technology that I have come to appreciate and know how to apply. I understand not only how to solder the electrical connections on the keypad to the ports of the micro-controller, but also the most effective sequence in which to press the keys in order to produce a narrative that welcomes you into my world.
It’s amazing me right now to reflect on how well I know the laptop on which I am writing this article. I am capable of developing every aspect of a machine like this, including its processor, its operating system, its application software, and its circuit boards. That’s amazing, but it’s so easy for me to dismiss. Anything I already understand, any capability I already possess, is automatically discounted as being worthless.
What stands in the way of “being myself” in public is an old story that says there’s something wrong with me. But that’s not my story; that’s someone else’s story, a story that was handed to me, a story that I received in order to take care of them. I said, “Let me try to make you feel better about yourself by taking on this story of shame.” I helped to carry their burden by living in bondage too.
But as I keep finding with the gift of shame, when I unwrap the ugly paper with its messages of “bad” and “wrong,” inside I always find the gift of a beautiful, innocent, and curious child, a wide-eyed infant looking out at the universe in awe and in wonder, wanting to explore and to create, wanting to express and to enjoy.
I see this child in you and I say to her, “bienvenue!”