Confusing Creativity and Empathy

colorful palette and paint brushes

In Jonathan Fields recent brief post he asked if creativity is an addiction. He had a couple of other questions as well, but the bulk of his post was a quote by Pearl S. Buck who said:

The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.

Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, their very breath is cut off…

They must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.

Pearl S. Buck plainly did not distinguish between empathy and creativity, which are two entirely different processes. She simply described unbalanced empathy with a dose of creativity added. This was not much of an exploration or definition of creativity, so using her words to leap into a discussion of creativity as addiction was a leap into greater error yet.

The fact of the matter is that human beings are inherently creative, so it is not an abnormality at all. School often enough stamps most of those creative impulses into dormancy so many adults do not even realize they are creative beings. If you are one of these adults, just try going through an entire day glaring angrily and snapping at everyone around you and see what you have created by the end of the day. That should leave no doubt that in myriad unnoticed ways we are endlessly creative in our lives.

It is entirely possible to be creative without being particularly empathetic. Creativity is a way of combining elements or concepts to come up with something new, probably something a bit unexpected. To use art as an example, most people respond to art that tickles at the edge of their normal way of perceiving, because that is what they experience as innovative and exciting. If it goes too far past what they perceive as normal, they do not connect to it all, and if it falls short of their boundaries it bores them. This spectrum of innovation and excitement is characteristic of creativity and does not have anything directly to do with empathy unless empathy itself is being explored in the process.

Empathy is a warmly human quality which can be experienced in a variety of ways, just as creativity can be. Overly sensitive people are often overwhelmed by their unbalanced empathy, but this is a distortion of what should be a normal process. Empathy can accompany a drive to creative expression, but should not be mistaken for creativity itself, as Pearl S. Buck did.

Her description speaks more clearly about distorted empathy than healthy creative expression. When one opens the gates within oneself to that divine source of inspiration, it does lead to great outpourings of creation. Since I believe that our human purpose is to clearly express that amazing divine essence that lies in each of us, I do agree it can be fairly said that none of us are really alive unless we are creating, each of us in our own unique ways.

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6 thoughts on “Confusing Creativity and Empathy

  1. gia combs-ramirez

    Hmmm, not sure I’m on the same page with you here. Empathy is the ability to feel and understand someone else’s feelings and/or thoughts. In my perception Buck is talking about energetic sensitivity to our environment via our perception mechanisms, which she seems to view as a burden. She also seems to view as a burden our need to create. Strangely for me, both my perceptual awareness and my creative expression fill me with joy.

  2. AscenderRisesAbove

    I wasn’t able to really follow this – probably because it is so late at night and I really wanted to say something while here.I dont think that the need to create as being a burden; I think of it as “I have something that I *feel* and this is how I can relieve it – by creating it with this process.Not a burden at all… but without it there would be no method to communicate; a way to let the body get out the way and allow some primary source to say what it has to say.

  3. tami

    I can appreciate your thoughts here and your attempt to belittle and pick apart what Pearl Buck was trying to explain within this quote. However, it shows me how superficial your mind truly is. This quote is like an ocean; very deep. You only see the waves. For someone like me, who is an extremely creative and sensitive/empathetic person, I can identify with it on a deeper level. It is true that everyone has a desire to create and express themselves but on different degrees. She is talking about true creative genius here! Like Einstein or Dali. Wouldn’t you consider them to be a bit abnormal? They did not “fit in” to the box. Being really creative is a bit of a burden when trying to fit in with normal people. Being empathetic is the ability to walk in another’s shoes and feel what they feel. It takes a very creative person with a huge imagination to do this. Often times, when one is bombarded by everone elses’ feelings, it is a burden! In order to process those feelings, creative expression is necessary! You do not understand. But that is okay! I feel for ya!

  4. Lexi Sundell

    Thank you for your thoughts, but you presume too much knowledge of my own inner processes. Has it occurred to you I had times in my life I could barely enter a grocery store long enough to quickly buy some food because of the energetic bombardment I experienced? How would you know that? Obviously you don’t. You only know your own way of dealing with your own experiences. You might be a bit more careful about such superficial judgments in the future.

  5. rudy dean

    i don’t agree with the blog. there is nothing in that poem about empathy to suggest that pearl buck is confusing sensitivity with empathy. i don’t even think pearl buck is a female. i think whoever wrote the blog is simply reacting to the poem and pretending to be an authority on creativity without any knowledge of dabrowski or any knowledge of how sensory issues create talented people. the blog’s definition of creativity is just mashing two things together with no greater scope of creativity and no question or answer of what creates highly creative individuals. pearl buck is right.
    about a minute ago · Like

    empathy is great and the world lacks it, but that poem is not about empathy.

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