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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

Receptive Creativity In Place Of An Empty Nest

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As our youngest child gets ready to graduate from high school, the daily ups and downs of this year, including the college process, graduation plans, and her gradual separation from us, loom large. The last of three children moving away from home marks a significant move in my life, from what I see as the 'building' mode of living to one of 'receptive creativity.'

I never realized how much building we do in the first half of life, building a career, building work collaborations, building a marriage, building a home, building a safe, supportive environment for our children, that is, building a community. The "empty nest" people describe when children leave home as the space left when building is no longer needed. One can turn that building energy outward, to new projects at work, to new activities in the community, new friendships, new travels, or it can be turned inward, to a different type of living, one centered in what might be called receptive creativity.

By receptive creativity, I mean an inward journey of sorts, an exploration of the inner landscape - a naturalist of the mind stance where one notices thoughts, feelings, and actions (what makes up one's 'self') viewed from an observer-like vantage point. From this vantage point, one can see the cause and effects of who you are, the dependent relationships that define you, and the fallacy of the 'self' as an independent organism. Living life from such a vantage point differs greatly from the view in the builder mode ("I am in control") where the practical steps of 'how' take precedence over 'why' most of the time.

This does not mean that receptive creativity yields no new products, but the process used to get there differs dramatically. In the building mode, a sort of executive, top down control of oneself and the world leads the way. In the receptive creativity mode, a loss of self (self-transcendence), a letting go of control, leads the way. While creativity may be part of each, it flourishes in the latter. Scientists are starting to study these two modes of relating to oneself - what have been called 'hyperegoic' and 'hypoegoic' by Leary and colleagues at Duke University. Each offers a different route to self-regulation and each have very different but important roles in adaptation during the lifespan. As I move toward the later stages of life, it is clear to me that receptive creativity is now more advantageous toward my health and well-being than the building mode.

In this receptive creator mode of being, I don't plan much, I let things change a lot, I find that things I don't want to do can be a great source of contentment - I just change my interest from the endpoint to the process of going through it. It reminds me of the Herman Hesse story of Siddhartha where in his later stages of life, he finds contentment rowing passengers back and forth across a river, receptive to change and creative in the novelty of even the seemingly most repetitive tasks. In the receptive creative mode, the journey is what counts, not the destination. We change a lot throughout our lives from active builders to receptive creators (and back and forth) and there is a great degree of variability among us at all points of the lifespan. The Empty Nest is far from empty when experienced from this new vantage point.