Creativity in a pandemic

May 6th, 2020
This article is featured in the Growing Spiritually issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Collective effervescence 

David Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist who studied human behavior in the late 1800s and early 1900s. During his career, he coined the term collective effervescence to describe how communities come together from time to time and participate in the same thoughts or actions. In a 2017 article for The Cut, Drake Baer explains collective effervescence as “contagious euphoria” and “that glowy, giddy feeling where your sense of self slackens, yielding to a connection with your fellow, synchronized humans.” 

As we adjust to social distancing guidelines made necessary by COVID-19, most of us are observing, probably to a greater extent than usual, creative demonstrations of various sorts. It may be a paradox, but our isolation is providing more opportunities for creative community. A common thread during this particular crisis has been the need to connect to our fellow human beings. Humans have always sought meaning and connection, but since interpersonal interactions are currently limited, we are finding creative ways to cope. 

While essential employees continue to work overtime to provide invaluable services during the pandemic, some of us have found ourselves with extra time on our hands —  time to engage our imaginations and hone our talents. Some have simply had more time to enjoy these creative expressions that others are sharing. Through social media outlets, television, and neighborly expressions, we are seeing an explosion of creativity that is helping us, either through distraction or compassion, deal with this incredibly difficult time. 

Creative expressions 

The explosion of creative expressions we are now seeing come in a variety of forms, including paintings, writings, videos, music and photography, just to name a few. Many of these creative outpourings are being shared on social media, on television and in community spaces. People who might have been hesitant to share their personal creations feel a greater freedom, and in some cases an urgency, now to share them. 

You likely have your favorites, but on social media I’m enjoying the humorous videos made by individuals as well as families, the musical artists who are presenting online concerts, beautiful photographs by friends, shared cooking recipes and moving written pieces. The Art Recreation Challenge encourages people to reenact famous paintings, using costumes and props they have around the house, and then post their photos online, side by side with the original. The results are hilarious and educational. I learned some new things about these classic paintings! 

Churches are also engaging in the creative process by finding new ways to present worship services and continue small group spiritual formation. Many faith-based organizations are offering extra online content, such as daily devotionals or prayer resources. The struggle to adapt and learn to use platforms such as Zoom is real, but also an incredible learning opportunity. Technology is its own form of creativity, and we should thank software engineers for envisioning a world where people could connect virtually, especially since it is so needed right now. 

Neighborhoods are also expressing care for their fellow neighbors with front yard art galleries, sidewalk chalk art, birthday party parades and socially distanced concerts. If you’re a fan of the British comedy group Monty Python, you’ll appreciate the family in Michigan who put a sign in the front yard that said, “You have now entered the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Silly Walks. Commence silly walking immediately.” The family recorded some of the “silly walks” they saw and put them on social media. 

On Good Friday, our neighbor set up a series of prayer stations on a prominent sidewalk near our house. Walkers could stop and look at large posters put on a fence, each containing a Scripture and an artistic representation of Christ’s journey to the cross. A local TV news channel filmed the posters and aired the story as a “Stations of the Cross Display with Social Distancing in Mind.”

Healing euphoria 

Celebrities are also finding creative ways to share their talents while also providing encouragement during the COVID-19 crisis. Stars such as Jimmy Fallon, Lady Gaga and Paul McCartney shared performances from their homes in the televised production One World: Together at Home that aired April 18. This concert also paid tribute to the workers and volunteers who are on the frontlines of fighting the pandemic. 

One of the most moving examples I watched of collective effervescence was also one of the most sobering. On Easter Sunday, the great Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli performed a concert from inside an empty Milan cathedral, also called the Duomo di Milano. Milano is one of the areas of Italy most devastated by COVID-19. Bocelli ended the concert by singing a beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace” on the front steps of this massive church. This outpouring of music, at a time when Christian churches across the globe were closed for the most sacred of holidays, provided solace and a sense of togetherness. According to a digital radio station in the United Kingdom, this concert was the biggest livestream of classical music ever, with more than 28 million views from across the globe in its first 24 hours. 

Consider the balcony concerts in Italy, where people who live in nearby apartment complexes are standing outside on their balconies and singing together. They are separated by space but connected by art. Or think about the clapping, cheering, and sounding of sirens that occur each night at 7:00 p.m. in New York City when healthcare workers change shifts. An emergency room doctor I follow on Instagram shared, in emotional posts, how these creative expressions of thanks keep him going in these dark times as he cares for the sick and dying each day. Other creative expressions of solidarity and gratitude include crafters who are sewing masks to protect their friends, family and even strangers. 

All these forms of collective effervescence, these shared creative expressions, exemplify humanity at its best, even as our usual political divisions continue to rage. As Baer points out, “Humans, the hyper-social creatures that we are, love to feel a part of something.” This “part of something” is also our longing for God. Being Christ to each other — through laughter, music and other creative outlets — makes God’s presence manifest with us, now and for eternity.

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