Creativity and Peacebuilding by William M. Timpson

Adapted from William M. Timpson’s (2002) Teaching and Learning Peace (Madison, WI: Atwood.

Mairead Corrigan Maguire (2000) was the winner of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in Northern Ireland involving ordinary people in the effort to end the historic violence there and build a culture of peace. When addressing these kinds of complex issues, with all their systemic reasons and historic roots, she notes Gandhi’s insistence that “nonviolence does not mean passivity. It is the most daring, creative, and courageous way of living, and it is the only hope for the world. Nonviolence demands creativity (p. 161).”

To help people consider the importance of nonviolent alternatives at every level, we can encourage them to explore the creative process. Most have some intuitive feel for what’s creative. We can think about it as innovation or insight, new ideas or possibilities, “thinking outside the box” or “pushing the envelope.” Although we may be able to see creativity in others, we may not know much about cultivating our own creative potential.

If you believe people like Maguire, creativity becomes especially important for promoting peace in the midst of conflict. If you believe the futurists, creativity will become increasingly valuable as computers and technology continue to expand into every aspect of our work and personal lives, freeing us up to explore, design and create new possibilities for old problems.

The question is, how do we best use our creativity? As a nation we can, for example, continue to put vast resources and creative energies into research on new weapons systems and our capacity for war generally or we can begin to insist on new mechanisms for peace. We have a cabinet level Department of Defense as well as three military academies. When do we get a Department of Peace and at least one “peace academy?” The U.S. currently spends $100 million dollars a day just maintaining its nuclear arsenal. According to a Forbes article in 2017, our annual military expenditures are more than the sum of the annual military expenditures for the next fifteen countries combined. (See https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2017/04/24/the-top-15-countries-for-military-expenditure-in-2016-infographic/#1539981943f3).

Paradoxically, the ability to think in new ways can become increasingly difficult for young people as they move through their formal schooling. Despite their natural curiosity and drive for independence, students spend many years in formal classroom settings where they are taught to follow certain rules, master particular skills, regurgitate known “facts” and hypothesize about various theories. How much of their innate inquisitiveness and spontaneity, for example, gets stifled or lost because of this kind of prescribed learning? If you become very proficient at jumping over educational hurdles, do you run the risk of losing sight of the journey your inner self—or the world for that matter—wants you to make or needs you to make if we are to learn how to deal with our differences and disagreements in less violent ways?

Remember the famous Robert Frost poem about the “path less taken” and how “that made all the difference”? Addressing these kinds of questions is at the heart of the creative process.

But what defines creativity? What do we know about it? Can we recognize it? Can we teach it and how? Patrick’s (1955, What is Creative Thinking, New York: Philosophica Library) identification of the stages of creativity has proven useful as a starting point over these many years.

The first stage is preparation, where you collect data and resources. If you really do want a fresh look at an old problem, rethink the data you examine and the resources you collect? When you take on some project for peacemaking, for example, you will need enough time to talk about your ideas and get lots of input, to read widely, to explore resources in the library, on the Web or in the community, to consult with others, etc. Early in this process, you will want to be active and organized but consciously uncommitted to any specific outcome, open to different perspectives and new insights.

According to Patrick, the second stage involves incubation, where you dwell on various ideas and possibilities, some of which may seem quite far-fetched, without a focused (or even conscious) attention to any one particular solution. You have to let ideas percolate, and then be alert to what bubbles up. Know that this process can take considerable time and cause frustration. However, just knowing about the role of incubation can help you better plan and manage this aspect of the creative process.

The third stage involves illumination, or what has been called the “Ah-ha! Phenomenon”, when a solution may suddenly spring to mind. Whenever you feel stuck with nothing new coming to mind, you have to trust this stage in the creative process and wait. You never know when a flash of insight will happen. Useful ideas often arise when people are doing something else.

A fourth and final stage requires verification, when you assess the implications of your insights and conduct any additional experiments as tests of your ideas. Not all creative insights will be useful. Some might be absurd. Use this stage to assess whatever surfaces.

Now return to the challenges set out by Maguire. How can Patrick’s stages help us think about teaching nonviolence or ridding our own psyches of its influence, about changing the focus of our media and celebrating peacemakers, about addressing poverty and racism as fundamental sources of conflict? Understanding more about creativity can provide much needed patience and wisdom.

 

Bill Timpson has been on the faculty at Colorado State University in its School of Education for many years and a member of the Fort Collins Rotary Club where his focus on sustainable peacebuilding in Burundi, East Africa, has been supported by two Global Grants.

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