One thing I often actively long for is inspiration. This might be something as lofty as divine inspiration; or it might be something like wanting to be inspired by a woman (not just attracted to her or interested in her); or to be inspired to make great art; or to be inspired with a brilliant new business idea; or to have an inspiration for a new blog post; or an inspiration for something witty to say at a cocktail party.
One can see as I descend the ladder of importance how the word inspiration doesn’t seem to fit any more. It is one of those words — like awesome — that gets tossed around so casually that it’s almost lost its original sense. Awesome means, well, inspiring awe. And to inspire means to breathe into with divine breath. Owen Barfield is good on this:
The meaning which inspiration possessed up to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries carries us right back to the old mythical outlook in Greece and elsewhere, when poets and prophets were understood to be the direct mouthpieces of superior beings — beings such as the Muses, who inspired or “breathed into” them the divine afflatus. Through Plato and Aristotle this conception came to England at the Renaissance and lasted as an element of aesthetic theory well on into the eighteenth century, if it can be said to have died out altogether even now. But, like so many other words, this one began in the seventeenth century to suffer that process which we have called “internalization”. Hobbes poured etymologically apposite scorn on the senseless convention “by which a man, enabled to speak wisely from the principles of Nature and his own meditation, loves rather to be thought to speak by inspiration, like a Bagpipe”. And we may suppose that from about this time inspiration … began to lose its old literal meaning and to acquire its modern and metaphorical one. Like instinct, it was now felt, whatever its real nature, to be something arising from within the human being rather than something instilled from without.
—History in English Words, emphasis mine.
[Hobbes here betrays the triumph of wit over humility, does he not? His words have bite, his bagpipe metaphor shames us momentarily. And yet, can we not sense the empty, triumphalist desperation of his attitude?]
If inspiration truly comes from without, which I do believe (my long-used self-centered habits notwithstanding), then there is little or nothing I can do to cause the inspiration to happen. It simply isn’t my choice and never will be, no matter how hard I clench my fists and squint my eyes.
But that does not therefore mean I am totally passive in the process. For in order for a body to take in air, it must have lungs and the throat must open up. And in order for the mind to be inspired it must be alive and undistracted. (I refer to distraction in the pejorative sense; many people, myself included, get intellectual inspiration when engaged in some other activity, like listening to music or doing the dishes; I don’t count these as “distractions” in this sense. Distractions that cloud the mind are, rather, mental obsessing, or filling up the mind with puzzle games or television or some other chattering noise.) Just so, in order for the soul to be inspired, it must be open and alive and willing.
Seeds grow in fertile soil, not on rocks or among the thorns. One must therefore seek to make oneself fertile soil.
What, then, must we do to become fertile soil, to become inspirable?
Well, it probably varies from person to person. But first of all, we must stop trying to force the hand of the sower. We must not try to force inspiration, as if with a bellows crammed down the gullet. An attitude of openness is necessary; impatience is useless and counterproductive.
More specifically, I think that silence is needed. One need not withdraw from social situations (though for some people at some times, this may be proper), but one must learn how to stop thinking, and stop listening to chatter. This means listening to music or to nature, or to nothing at all, and it means shutting off the radio and the television and (though it pains me to say it) even closing one’s books. Surrounding oneself with beauty is helpful too — so make sure those books when they are open and that music when it is playing are beautiful and rich and true.
Dwelling on negative emotions is counterproductive. Though we must all resist that which is evil, and let our natural revulsion to evil be felt fully and to direct our actions, we must also learn how to mentally turn the page and focus on gratitude and wonder. This is not merely being treacly. It’s a matter of pure practicality. The mind has a labyrinth-like character when we are thinking of what we hate; we follow the rusty iron thread of a dark Ariadne around and around, and never break into daylight. Gratitude and wonder are refreshing, calming, lucid. One need not “dumb it down.” In fact, true intelligence arises not from digging in the muck but from standing atop the morning mountainside.
Finally, diligence in all these things is needed. If I spend a mere afternoon “being good,” I will get an afternoon’s worth of inspiration. These things must be done for their own sake, feeding the soil of one’s life. And that diligence must spring from the first thing I mentioned, which is patience. Humility teaches us that inspiration must come from without; diligence makes us inspirable, makes us fertile; patience gives time for the two to meet, at a time and place that is not ours to choose.