Thursday, February 3, 2011

Busting the Myth of Originality

I remember one spring day, as a college sophomore who spent most of her time pondering ideals and trying to understand the way the world worked, when I stumbled haplessly into a history class. My professor lectured about Plato, explaining his analogy of the cave: we were all in a cave which we could not see out of, but into which a light from above was shining and reflecting on one of the walls. From the shadows it made, we could get a glimmer of the true reality, but the reality we saw was only a shadow of the actual world that was outside, shadows that gave us an idea of the true reality which was always mediated.

I remember listening to him, a nineteen-year-old who had never been exposed to Plato before, and being enormously frustrated. It wasn’t his idea itself that frustrated me, but the realization that I hadn’t come up with it. I had been developing a similar notion myself in all my philosophical ponderings, and had felt rather original about it. But alas, it turned out that I wasn’t original after all:

Plato had beat me to it by well over two thousand years. Drat.

As I recall that feeling of disappointment, I realize that it stemmed from two misconceptions, one of which was corrected in that class, and the other of which I would only learn to correct slowly in the next decade:

One, I was under the misconception that my ideas were my own. True indeed, I had not studied Plato before, and thus I couldn’t say I had been influenced directly by his writings. But I had certainly read C. S. Lewis, who had read and absorbed plenty of Plato’s ideas. Even aside from Lewis, I had been influenced by a church that had been influenced by a church that had been influenced by a church that had been influenced been Plato somewhere down the line. Despite what my 20th-century American culture had told me, I was not an original in that sense. My ideas were not my own.

Two, I was under the misconception that originality was an ideal, that it would have been better for me to have come up with a notion myself than to have learned it from the generations that had come before. We shoot ourselves in the foot and bite the hand that feeds us (to mix metaphors) in an effort to come up with new ideas, when we have a copious abundance of wisdom handed to us like a wrapped gift for us to unwrap and use.

Thank God for all the people who have passed their wisdom down to us, whether we have directly acknowledged them or not. And thank God we do not have to invent the faith on our own. It was always too heavy a responsibility for a nineteen-year-old to manage on her own, even if she thought she had to.

No comments: