My brother-in-law is a big fan of Goethe (full name: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.) By the way, I just discovered that the proper German pronunciation of his name is “Goo-t’h.” (Don’t feel bad—apparently his name was a challenge for people to pronounce back in his own day, as well.) In any case, every time I’m at my sister’s house I come across another interesting book about Goethe. In this current one, Love, Life, Goethe, the author John Armstrong writes about Goethe’s desire for balance between his inner life and his outer life:
“[Goethe’s] thoughts and feelings seek external manifestation: the inner is to become the outer. And through externalization, his inner states will—hopefully—lose their fleeting, private and capricious character and be made precise, ordered and available to others.”
“…each is diminished when pursued alone. The urge to communicate what is going on ‘inside’ becomes a boring egoism, unless what is expressed is substantial and serious. On the other hand, exhaustive taking in—visiting all the famous places, reading everything—is a sterile occupation unless what is absorbed becomes personally enriching.”
When self-expression is over-emphasized, the “quality” of the self being expressed is not given enough consideration, yet when learning and scholarship are overemphasized, not enough attention is paid to what he calls “inner transformation.”
As someone who is both an educator and a creative, I’ve experienced both of these polarities, and I can see these polarities in others, as well as in our educational institutions. The defacto system that operates in today’s world is that we are considered to be “learners” for our first 22 (or-so) years, and then we “graduate,” becoming fully-functioning adults capable of “expressing” ourselves in the world. In truth, adult life requires a balance between the two—sometimes we are learners, taking in the world; other times we are involved in sharing our learnings and creative products with others. In Getting Messy, I use the word “teaching” to refer to Goethe’s outer, self-expressive mode. When we are involved in expressing ourselves to the larger world, we are teaching. In a healthy adult life, we shift back-and-forth between these two modes: sometimes learning, sometimes teaching. Healthy adults make this shift effortlessly.