Radiation Canaries - Permission

Big magic: creative living beyond fear - Elizabeth Gilbert 2015

Radiation Canaries

Do you think I’m wrong? Are you one of those people who believe that the arts are the most serious and important thing in the world?

If so, my friend, then you and I must part ways right here.

I offer up my own life as irrefutable evidence that the arts don’t matter as much as we sometimes trick ourselves into believing they do. Because let’s be honest: You would be hard-pressed to identify a job that is not objectively more valuable to society than mine. Name a profession, any profession: teacher, doctor, fireman, custodian, roofer, rancher, security guard, political lobbyist, sex worker, even the ever-meaningless “consultant”—each is infinitely more essential to the smooth maintenance of the human community than any novelist ever was, or ever will be.

There was once a terrific exchange on the TV show 30 Rock that distilled this idea down to its irreducible nucleus. Jack Donaghy was mocking Liz Lemon for her utter uselessness to society as a mere writer, while she tried to defend her fundamental social importance.

Jack: “In a postapocalyptic world, how would society even use you?”

Liz: “Traveling bard!”

Jack, in disgust: “Radiation canary.”

I think Jack Donaghy was right, but I do not find this truth to be dispiriting. On the contrary, I find it thrilling. The fact that I get to spend my life making objectively useless things means that I don’t live in a postapocalyptic dystopia. It means I am not exclusively chained to the grind of mere survival. It means we still have enough space left in our civilization for the luxuries of imagination and beauty and emotion—and even total frivolousness.

Pure creativity is magnificent expressly because it is the opposite of everything else in life that’s essential or inescapable (food, shelter, medicine, rule of law, social order, community and familial responsibility, sickness, loss, death, taxes, etc.). Pure creativity is something better than a necessity; it’s a gift. It’s the frosting. Our creativity is a wild and unexpected bonus from the universe. It’s as if all our gods and angels gathered together and said, “It’s tough down there as a human being, we know. Here—have some delights.”

It doesn’t discourage me in the least, in other words, to know that my life’s work is arguably useless.

All it does is make me want to play.