The Fires of Inspiration

David Howard Hitchcock, Halemaumau, Lake of Fire, 1888

The earliest record we have of human creation dates back over 40,000 years ago, to a red disk in a cave in Spain. On the other side of the globe in Indonesia, a few hundred years later, humans stenciled their hands on a cave wall.

Roughly 5,000 years later, the first recorded animal depictions began to appear. Human agriculture would start some 20,000 years later, around 9,500 BCE, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. To state that artistic expression is inherent in humanity is a historical fact that predates the bulk of human invention by millennia.

Art is the fruit that sustains and impels us forward. Whether it is found within the first heroic epics, a petroglyph scene of a hunt, the illuminated text of religious tomes or a looping video installation of airplane safety demonstrations, our culture is suffused with artistic expression. Language, too, is no exception, and the great writers and speeches given to posterity are dripping with metaphor, simile, and lush imagery.

Prometheus, the original innovator

Very early in our existence in this universe, we fell to expressing ourselves in artistic modes. Like Prometheus, we had stolen the power of gods. With our newfound power, we were free to shape and define the world around us. Before Bitcoin, before the Renaissance, before the wheel, the brightest flame of humanity was Art.

Like the gift of fire, art allowed humanity to become something more. The story of Prometheus is one of innovation and disruption. It is the same storyline that has played out for every innovator and creator for thousands of years. The force of creativity gives form and balance to the world, melding our dreams with reality.

Lightning in a bottle

Benjamin Franklin, among many things, is known for capturing lightning in a bottle. The phrase, born out of earnest scientific experimentation, still holds today as an affirmation of the power of creation. Business deals and leadership decisions that prove fortuitous are often ascribed to the power of the heavens, an ideal to strive towards.

We wrap our language in these stories and themes because they are central to what it is to be human. That first attempt at taming the power of electricity was made possible by a kite string linking the heavens to the earth.

Creation is a pure expression of humanity, but without something anchoring us, all the inspired decisions and beautiful expressions of the soul may as well dissolve into the ether. Just as the charge on the fateful key eventually fizzled, nothing lasts long in isolation.

Our goals are what we use to keep us grounded while we set to work corraling the tempest of inspiration. What we’re left with is a difficult balance to strike between our dreams and reality. Too much dreaming and we drift away, too much reality, and those dreams wither and die.

Ray Bradbury, in his essay collection, Zen in the Art of Writing, details the importance of inspiration, and the impact of not nurturing that which inspires you. In the case of Bradbury, his inspiration was the early comic strips of Buck Rogers. Children are known to be cruel, and compelled by the jeering of his friends, young Bradbury divested himself of his comic strips.

It was only when he brought them back into his young life that he again felt at ease, happy and inspired. Fans and critics alike would argue that this ongoing stream of inspiration served him incredibly well. Too many swing too far into the extremes, whether it be the joyless office drone with no passions or hobbies, or the perennial Peter Pan living in their parents’ basement.

Fuel the fire

While the notion that music bolsters productivity has largely been debunked over the years, many will conclude, like this 1966 experiment, that music enhances mood and changes the perception of the amount of work done. It’s a bit disheartening that the magic bullet of some Bach the night before finals is largely a bust, but what’s encouraging is that music does have the ability to improve mood.

Submersing yourself in a nurturing environment is something the Japanese have been doing since the 1980s, and Henry David Thoreau would attest to the majesty and magic of nature. Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is meant as a cleansing and energizing therapy. A walk through your favorite museum or gallery will also have its positive effects.

Empty calories

In popular culture, the fast and the flashy tend to sell the quickest, but marketing experts have noticed that the snack-sized portions of information and entertainment are increasingly empty calories. Long-form content marketing, a conflux of arts, culture, and business, is on the rise.

Whether it be the episodic story of a knight representing your favorite domestic light beer, a corporate podcast borne out of a viral craze for a promotional sauce from the 90s, or Instagram feeds that unspool like television sagas, even the way humans sell and advertise seeks to satisfy some deep-seated craving for inspiration.

Fishing for fire

Stereo instructions may be a dry read, but they exist so that we can enjoy beautiful music. Before you can paint epic landscapes or dramatic portraiture, there are years of training and practice needed. What helps humanity arrive at the point of creating that art is the impulse to shape our world.

Life can be a raw and immediate affair, and through our ceaseless need to create and tether our wildest dreams and goals, we’ve managed to create some semblance of society to soften the edges. While the rules and trappings of civilization are far from the pure experiences of making music or watching a sunrise, they’re what help keep those dreams and ambitions within reach.

Every innovator, every artist, casts lines out into the sky, hoping to hook lightning, briefly capture it, and illuminate the world in a new way. The human experience is the sum of this network of tethers, stringing all the way back to a humble cave, where we first touched the fire of the gods.

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