Kwanzaa 2021: Kuumba (Creativity)

Facing the challenges of the next 20 years is going to require some ingenious creativity on our part. The government’s response to climate change, pandemics, wealth inequality, crippling debt, institutional racism, and revitalizing urban blight has sent a clear message we should embrace going into 2022: we’re on our own, and it’s up to us to adapt to what’s coming. This is a sobering thought, but it can also be an exciting one. Taking the future of our communities into our own hands allows us to throw our whole hearts into the sixth of the Seven Principles and what we close out the year with — Kuumba, or Creativity.

Maybe it’s because of my upbringing, but I have a special place in my heart for the things we celebrate that were born in struggle. In music, we have a direct pipeline from the blues of the Mississippi delta to the birth of rock and roll. Much of Russian literature was produced in response to the turmoil of the revolution and the unacknowledged failure to address the struggles of the poor during that time. French cuisine, and its American cousin in Creole cooking, largely started by making anything that could be found more palatable. The best examples still maintain that earthy, workday feel and the ability to make a bad situation a bit more tolerable.

There’s a Buddhist fable about beings trapped in the hell for gluttons, stuck at a banquet table with three-foot-long forks and spoons strapped to their hands. The utensils are far too long for anyone to feed themselves. They’re cursed to see and smell heaps of delicious food without the ability to partake any of it. Everyone is set to go mad with starvation, until one person decides to use their fork to feed the person across from them. Others follow this example, and what was a hell of longing and deprivation becomes a heaven of mutual aid and compassion. The only thing that’s changed is the beings’ response to the situation, nothing else. It’s a consistent reminder to me that often we already have what we need to create heaven on earth. We just need to look at things in a different light.

Looking ahead to next year on this last day of the old one is an excellent time to do that. We’re all limping to the finish line here, struggling to make sense of a world that feels like it’s gone crazy. We’re nursing personal traumas and sharing the burden of cultural ones, wondering what we’ll have to deal with in 2022. It’s harder than ever to see the new year as a time of fresh possibilities, as an opportunity to make ourselves and the world anew. Even though this year may have been an improvement on 2020 I think we’re still braced for frightening times ahead.

I can’t in good conscience say that nothing bad will happen next year. In fact, I’m sure we can expect more extreme weather events as the consequences of climate change continue to manifest. We’ll still have to navigate the broken social contract and the complications it brings to our pandemic response. The delicate machinery of our civilization will continue to break down in ways that will surprise us. Maybe the supply chain gets severely disrupted, or infection rates spike to a level where there’s not enough of us to keep the economy chugging along. There might be mass displacement, unforeseen disasters, more illness. And that’s not even bringing up the possibility of the 2022 midterm elections hastening our slide towards totalitarian minority rule. We’re in for serious tests, friends. But as sure as that is, our vast creativity is just as reliable. We can find solutions for this and any other thing that comes our way.

We’re at the cusp of great change. It’s a tragedy that our leadership didn’t see fit to manage this change more slowly and carefully, but that can’t be helped at this point. We will need to drastically rethink almost every aspect of our lives, from our relationship to food, commerce, and travel to the way we decide on things as a society. It’s clear that the way we’re doing things now isn’t working, and it can’t be sustained if we want to make a better future for ourselves. The future is here, and the time to make it is now.

What could this new world be? Creativity fuels an answer to this question that will be our antidote to despair and nihilism. Yes, this civilization will end soon. But that doesn’t mean we can’t build something better in its place. Each of us has the power to imagine how great this new world can be and take creative steps towards its realization. We can reshape every aspect of our lives to be more compassionate with our fellow creatures, more resilient in the face of the challenging times, more content with what we have and share than forever longing for the hazy definition of “success” our capitalist society insists we must keep emptying our pockets for. We can live in a world where each of us has enough, where we help each other towards our best selves, where we work together to face the future.

We can use our creativity in the more traditional sense to help others envision a world where we adapt to our changing climate. We can tell stories of our descendants enjoying the fruits of the work we’ve begun now, show how even the challenges of our new society can be affirming to work through. We can show ourselves how to make friends with our worst individual and collective impulses, and how better to address the people who’ve been acting on them to the detriment of everyone else. What does a just and more connected world look like? How can we re-establish the sense of personal responsibility to our fellows that we’ll need to pull through this together? We already know the world as it stands is unsustainable, but what can we do to move to a more sustainable one?

Our earliest attempts at answering these questions won’t likely be the ones that will be in place decades from now, but we can at least start this conversation with ourselves. We’ll never be able to build a better world if we can’t imagine one, and that’s what makes creativity a vital attribute to carry with us into the next year. We have to believe a better world is possible, and we have to show others what that can look like. Every sea change we’ve undergone as a species started with someone, somewhere, re-imagining what the world could be.

Happy Kwanzaa, everyone. May we use our creativity to better ourselves, our communities, and our world.

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