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What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness

July 20, 2013

That’s what’s written on the cover of a journal that I have. And it’s true.

To get something accomplished, it’s important to set specific goals. It’s better to practice guitar five minutes a day than to practice for three hours one day and spend the rest of the week wondering why we’re not Joe Satriani.  However, setting these definite goals is not something we like. We shy away from it, because it feels lifeless, arbitrary, calculating, and boring. We tell ourselves that it is dehumanizing, that it puts life in a box, that it takes away all the spontaneity from our activities.

“Dude, you’ve got some Cheetos? Let me have some!”

The problem is that we have the wrong metanarratives.

In his book The Christian Faith, theologian Michael Horton defines a metanarrative as “a story masquerading as a purely rational description of ‘the way things really are.'” (16) Unlike just plain stories, we tend to imbibe these metanarratives unconsciously. So a person might have adopted the metanarrative that Christians are unreasonable, not through any logical proof, but because of his obnoxious born-again Aunt Ruth, the weird guy that handed him a Chik Trak at the county fair, and an episode of a TV show with an evil priest. The person would think that he had come his view through pure reason, but in actuality, it came from a set of stories that he had heard. The same goes for any number of beliefs that you, and I hold. They may seem to be coldly rational truths, but if we examine them enough we will find them to be metanarratives.

How does this apply to setting goals? Many of us have imbibed the metanarrative of the “free spirit.” It goes something like this: “Luis was a creative artist, but art school was bringing him down. All these exercises and formal classes were sucking the life out of his paintings.One day he school, grew his hair long, and moved to Montana. Now he lives in a cabin and keeps a flexible schedule, painting when he feels like it. Now that he is free from all those artificial structures, he can be truly creative.” It’s a beautiful story. Many movies and TV shows have been made about this story, most of which involve a manic pixie dream girl. There’s only one problem with it.

It’s a myth. A fable. A tall tale. It’s almost entirely false.

“Dear diary…”

Think of this story: “Mike was a promising high school football player, but practice was bringing him down. All those drills and working out were sucking the life from his game. One day he just decided to stop practicing and working out. Soon, the Pittsburgh Steelers were begging him to be their quarterback. The next year, he won the Heisman.” The myth of the free spirit is destroyed everyday by coaches and athletes across the country. We know that quarterbacks and point guards can’t achieve success without practice and routine. But we think that musicians, poets and artists can. And worse, we think that we can as well. After all, we have such great ideas.

The fact is, great art, great writing, great music, and great living don’t come from “the soul.” Physical fitness doesn’t drop out of the sky. You can’t press “Up Down Up Down Left Right Left Right A B Start” and get a great prayer life in return. These things come from practice. The myth of the free spirit says that  structures constrict our creativity, but they don’t–they provide the grammar for it. When a poet writes a sonnet, she isn’t constrained by the structure. Rather, it enhances her creativity, allowing her to manipulate language in a skilled way to produce something that is both like and unlike every sonnet that came before it. The “free spirit,” may be a good character in a movie, but in real life, he usually just sits around, waiting for “inspiration” to come, and eating your food and drinking your beer while he waits. He’ll never find inspiration, because he isn’t looking. If by some chance he did find inspiration, he wouldn’t have the tools to express it.

Uncle George is still waiting for that inspiration to hit.


Once we realize that the “free spirit” metanarrative is just a story that we are telling ourselves, we can stop entertaining vague visions of future greatness and instead focus on what we are accomplishing in the here and now, filling “the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run.” So write down your goals, practice those scales, put in your thirty minutes a day, and save the stories for Hollywood.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2013 2:04 am

    Points for Konami Code.

  2. Troy Lizenby permalink
    July 25, 2013 1:54 pm

    This sentence: “The myth of the free spirit says that structures constrict our creativity, but they don’t – they provide the grammar for it.” was worth the price of the article. But, you say, “I did not receive your payment”. Bill me. :>)

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