All the World's a Classroom
This is the second post in an article series on individuality. Read the first here. This post is for those curious about what individuality means in the Judeo-Christian perspective, even if you don’t subscribe to it.
“That’s so him.” “Totally something she’d do!” “Who would’ve thought of that?!” These acknowledgements of individuality—what makes you, you—are not foreign to us. The existence of individuality in the human experience is indisputable.
Where does our individuality come from?
Well, this is a worldview question, with answers as numerous as the beliefs that exist on Earth. This post is specifically about the Judeo-Christian perspective and its regard of mankind and individuality. Though you may not subscribe to it, I’m inviting you to empathize and gain an understanding of how those that do see individuality from their point of view.
Mankind as An Image of the Divine
In the Judeo-Christian worldview, a person’s individuality is anchored to the very subject the whole religious system is about: God. The subject of individuality is front and center in the grand opening of its sacred text.
Creation, the beginning of the world, opens the Hebrew Bible in the first chapter of Genesis. It’s a much-debated chapter, but let’s set debates aside for a moment and consider the text through the lens of creativity, to see the narrative in the light of a creative process.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” it begins. The chapter narrates the creation of the world in six days, which builds up to the creation of mankind in the sixth. The text says,
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
Mankind is patterned according to God’s image, which is intriguing, because God prohibits the making of images, explicitly stated in the Ten Commandments. Other biblical stories show that mankind is in danger of carving a rock, assembling wood, or creating buildings, even if they were initially made for God, and worshipping these things instead of God. The biblical prophets write against this over and over again. There was to be no idol worshipped in place of Him, because no one thing can adequately represent the fullness of His character and glory. Nothing is big enough to fully represent who He is. But, in mankind there is an exception.
In the collection of essays Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, rabbi Abraham J. Heschel writes,
“And yet there is something in the world that the Bible does regard as a symbol of God. It is not a temple or a tree, it is not a statue or a star. The one symbol of God is man, every man. God Himself created man in His image.”
A person, a human being, is viewed with very high regard, because he is an image of the divine.
“Human life is holy, holier even than the Scrolls of the Torah. Its holiness is not man’s achievement; it is a gift of God rather than something attained through merit. Man must therefore be treated with the honor due to a likeness representing the King of Kings.“
This image of the divine is not limited to one person, group, or nation. It is present in every single person.
“…not one man or one particular nation but all men and all nations are endowed with the likeness of God… the divine likeness is something all men share.”
This foundation is also the Judeo-Christian basis of the equality of all men, the anchor of justice and how we ought to treat one another.
“This is a conception of far-reaching importance to biblical piety. What it implies can hardly be summarized. Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.”
Power to Think and to Do
The concept mankind being an image of the divine is rich with meaning. One aspect of this is the capability to create, which is demonstrated by the Creator Himself. It is the capability to invent, to see beyond what is into what could be, and to work towards that destination one step at a time.
In the book Education, Ellen White writes:
“Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do.”
The power to think and transform that thought into reality is the most baffling and fascinating trait of humanity. It mirrors the divine pattern as told in the Creation narrative.
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.”
First there’s a thought, then words. The words become reality. And God sees what happens and calls it good. Finally, He names what He has just made. What is this if not the core of a creative process?
“The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought. Instead of confining their study to that which men have said or written, let students be directed to the sources of truth, to the vast fields opened for research in nature and revelation. Let them contemplate the great facts of duty and destiny, and the mind will expand and strengthen. Instead of educated weaklings, institutions of learning may send forth men strong to think and to act, men who are masters and not slaves of circumstances, men who possess breadth of mind, clearness of thought, and the courage of their convictions.”
Those we admire, leaders of the world, makers and changers of society, display this power of individuality—to think and to act. They are thinkers for themselves, not reflectors of other people’s thoughts. They are masters of their circumstances.
Individuality and Creativity
In the last post, I emphasized that individuality is an asset in creative processes, in works that have no set to-do instructions, in the making of something new (as opposed to imitating an existing creation). Where there’s no other guide, individuality, your power to think and to do, is your only resource. Indeed, it is in these types of original work that individuality shines forth the most.
Consider this. When God chose to write His opening act, His first introduction to the world, His grand entrance, His chance for a first impression in the first chapter of the Bible, He chose a creative story, a narrative of Him engaging in creative work.
In that first chapter, God is the sole agent, the ultimate actor, and the decision maker. He stares at His blank canvas, a void and shapeless world, and He begins that journey of creating something new.
I wonder if this creative process is also a discovery, something like the times when we engage in creative endeavors and surprise ourselves at what comes out. Maybe there’s an elevated, divine version of this, because at the end of each creation day, God sees what He has done, pausing for a moment of reflection, evaluation, consideration, and says that it is good. It is almost as if He doesn’t completely know if it would turn out good, at least not as predictable as mass printing labels from a manufacturing process. The artist sees and is satisfied with what He has carved that day.
It is easy to take stories like these for granted, to miss the essence and mystery of the creative process. We take it for granted because when we read stories of how inventors create, we already see the results. Thus we think it’s inevitable, a classic case of hindsight bias. Of course the plane should look that way, it’s obvious! Whereas if we put ourselves in the shoes of the Wright brothers, going forward in time, experimenting and trying out designs, the final product could have taken a different shape amidst the thousands of decisions they had to make.
We already know how important the sun is when we read the fourth day of creation. The trees are already outside our windows when we read about the third day, so it does not occur to us that trees did not really have to work that way. Things didn’t have to work the way they do now, because the creator started with a blank canvas. Someone decided where to put the stars, the waters, the sky, and the eyes. They were design decisions, made by an individual with thoughts and intent, with power to accomplish them.
Most importantly, there was freedom. God had full freedom to choose how He would shape the world among numerous options. He could have chosen a million other combinations, just like a writer could start his book a thousand different ways, a painter beginning with a thousand different strokes. The shape that we see at the end is the culmination of a nonlinear process, the artist’s individuality, mind and heart at work, which is all hidden in that final painting.
It is no small matter that God’s grand entrance—a story of His creativity—is also humanity’s most baffling trait. Stories of human creativity and inventions inspire us. The creators of the world, the change-makers, are those who know how to mine their individuality.
If mankind is made in God’s image, and the first thing He wants us to know about Himself is His creativity, then it must mean that He wants us to employ our individuality and creativity to its fullest measure. Could it be that in engaging in a creative process, we are mirroring divinity? Anyone who has engaged in creating something must know the magical wonder stored within the process, from inspiration to fruition. Could it be that Genesis 1 is an invitation for us to write our own creation stories?
Want more? See also Individuality: What Makes You, You, how genius work happens, and how to use individuality as the engine of learning.
What makes you, you? This is the first of a series of posts on individuality. To begin, here are 10 thoughts on individuality. Agree/disagree? Feel free to comment!
- Individuality. The you-ness that makes you, you. It’s your personality, your character, your history, your responses to situations, your decisions, all combined into one person, you. It’s what makes you unlike any other person on Earth and what makes no two people exactly alike.
- Everything that makes you who you are—your biological traits, genetic heritage, ethnic background, the place of your birth and upbringing, your current location, all the places you’ve been and worked at, the people you’ve met, the people who have impacted your life, your cultural heritage, your entire life experiences, in the particular order that you experienced them, the books you’ve read, the things you’ve seen—all of these enrich you to tell your own unique story. It gives you a unique lens through which you see the world, a unique perspective that will tinge everything you do.
- This unique perspective is a gift that you can give to the world. It’s your contribution to society and to humanity. Your individuality is an asset that will enrich our collective human experience.
- Individuality is especially an asset in creative works, works that have no prescribed formulas and to-do guides, works that haven’t been done before. Face to face with a blank canvas, a blank page, an empty theatre, a research problem, a work emergency, what will you do? Where will you turn to when there’s no manual around? All you’ve got is your wits, your judgment, your wisdom, and your character. The way you use them to tread an uncharted path will be uniquely yours. In these blank canvas situations, I think you’ll find that your individuality is a well, that in your identity lay a treasure of connections and creativity that can manifest into a truly original work. It will not always come out right, but if you keep digging and mining the well, something great and original will come to life.
- The paradox of individuality is that the person next to you is just as unique as you are. This presents no problem at all, because multiple individualities in turn can combine to create unique teams that produce unique results. As you are limited to your own experiences, others’ can inform and add to your life and to your collaborative work.
- No two people can solve the same problem completely alike, if they stay true to their identity and not become a carbon copy of someone else. No two doctors perform surgery exactly in the same way, no two people sing a song the same way, no two engineers do calculations the same way. Even in math, a field with rigid rules and laws, no two mathematicians solve math problems the same way. They may end up at the same final answer, but the road to the solution will bear the mark of the author’s individuality.
- Which is why diversity is an asset. Diversity is both a source of creative inventions and the outcome of originality. The combination of diverse individualities will create diverse solutions, which are needed in solving complex human problems.
- Don’t worry too much about what other people are doing. Don’t worry too much that your work should or should not resemble someone else’s. Look internally and ask yourself, what would YOU do?
- When you have found an outlet for your individuality, a work that truly fits who you are, you have found that rare intersection between self-fulfillment and altruism, something that is good for you and for society. It is self-centered, as in it all is anchored in your individuality, and selfless, in that it blesses other people too. It is rewarding internally, yet it is also a gift to the world. (See this post)
- There’s something that only you can give in this life. There’s work that only you can do, music that only you can create, books that only you can write, pictures that only you can take. This is your gift to all of us, and we can’t wait to see it.
You are more unique than you think you are.
I asked some friends, What does individuality mean to you? Here are their insightful answers.
Want more? See also how individuality and creativity are related, how genius work happens, and how to use individuality as the engine of learning.
Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, is beautiful and poetic love letter to science, to the world of trees and plants. When a scientist also has the gift of language, something like a miracle gets produced. Jahren seems to weave words so naturally, putting together words that mere mortals don’t usually put together, unexpectedly, surprisingly, and wonderfully.
I have recommended this book many times, and will continue to do so in the future. I guarantee that you will never look at a tree the same way again.
In this quote, Jahren reminisces the garden she built with her mother in her childhood. But it’s not a typical description of a garden.
My strongest memory of our garden is not how it smelled, or even looked, but how it sounded. It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest. At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still August day.
Only someone in love with plants can notice this amazing fact and put it down in those words.
Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. – Hope Jahren
A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance—to take its one and only chance to grow.
When the seed decides to begin its incarnation as a tree,
Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.
She does this again and again. In describing leaves, “The first real leaf is a new idea.” Or the wood,
A tree’s wood is also its memoir: we can count the rings to learn the tree’s age, for every season of growth requires a new sheath from the cambium. There’s a lot of additional information written into tree rings, but it is coded within a language that scientists don’t speak fluently—yet. An unusually thick ring could signify a good year, with lots of growth, or it could just be the product of adolescence, a random spurt of growth hormones cued by an influx of unfamiliar pollen from a distant source.
Here’s a new way to look at the furniture in your house.
Every piece of wood in your house—from the windowsills to the furniture to the rafters—was once part of a living being, thriving in the open and pulsing with sap. If you look at these wooden objects across the grain, you might be able to trace out the boundaries of a couple of rings. The delicate shape of those lines tells you the story of a couple of years. If you know how to listen, each ring describes how the rain fell and the wind blew and the sun appeared every day at dawn.
On science and scientific discovery,
A true scientist doesn’t perform prescribed experiments; she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge.
One of the most exquisite passages in the book is when she describes her first discovery as a graduate student (see also The Joy of Discovery). Science is usually covered in the media or movies as something sexy and high-tech. But the reality is most of science is done in humble labs with exposed pipes, hidden in the basement of a building, and during the hours most people are asleep. In this instance, the discovery comes during a certain all-nighter.
I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world, full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was—in addition to being small and insufficient—special. I was not only a quirky bundle of genes, but I was also unique existentially, because of the tiny detail that I knew about Creation, because of what I had seen and then understood.
…But on that night, I wiped my face with my hands, embarrassed to be weeping over something that most people would see as either trivial or profoundly dull. I stared out the window and saw the first light of the day spilling its glow out upon the campus. I wondered who else in the world was having such an exquisite dawn… Nothing could alter the overwhelming sweetness of briefly holding a small secret that the universe had earmarked just for me. I knew instinctively that if I was worthy of a small secret, I might someday be worthy of a big one.
Finally, this one here is now among my top favorite quotes of all time.
Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.
These quotes make me smile. Pick up Jahren’s beautiful book and join in the discovery.