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Michael Rossmann, S.J.October 17, 2022
Photo by Joe Gardner on Unsplash.

Some of the most creative poetry in recent decades has been about canned meat. Yes, SPAM. John Nagamichi Cho, who describes himself as a “meat poet,” as opposed to a Beat poet, set up the SPAM Haiku Archive in 1995. Thousands of compositions about the canned meat came pouring in from people all over the world.

The results have been hilarious. Here is one of my favorites:

Pink beefy temptress
I can no longer remain
Vegetarian

The three-line haiku has significant constraints. Its lines must have five syllables, seven syllables and five syllables, respectively. That’s it. And then you take that limited form and apply it to SPAM? The exercise is preposterously constrained.

And that’s exactly why it works. The flourishing of creative poetry is not in spite of the limitations; it’s because of them.

Constraints foster creativity. If I said to you, “Tell me something funny,” you might struggle to respond. If I said, “Tell me a knock-knock joke,” you could think of one immediately. The rigid formula of a haiku and the ridiculous subject matter of SPAM provide helpful scaffolding for creativity.

The flourishing of creative poetry is not in spite of the limitations; it’s because of them.

Need more evidence? Theodor Geisel once made a bet with his editor that he could write an entire book using only 50 unique words. It sounds impossible. A book with a vocabulary limited to 50 different words? Well, Geisel won the bet—and a lot more than that from earnings on the book. You may better know Geisel as Dr. Seuss. And that book? Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called Green Eggs and Ham.
 
Rather than being an obstacle, the significant restrictions pushed Geisel to be more creative. Generations of children have benefited.
 
Obstacles Are Opportunities
Insufficient freedom is a bad thing, but that doesn’t mean that a life without limits is a good thing. Total freedom is false freedom. An unconstrained life does not work. We need boundaries. We find freedom through constraints.

Encountering those constraints is not always pleasant. We often lament the obstacles in our way. We can focus on what we are missing. We yearn for more time or a bigger budget. We wish we had other people’s natural talents. We mourn the loss of loved ones. We get rejected. We struggle to accept the many times that life constrains our plans.

An unconstrained life does not work. We need boundaries. We find freedom through constraints.

But the obstacle in our path may be the avenue by which we can grow and get better. Necessity really is the mother of invention. We may not know how we’re going to get through a particular challenge, but we also know that we have faced uncertainty before. And we have become stronger by overcoming previous obstacles. We could complain about the roadblocks. Or we could allow them to show us a new and better path.

The Beauty of the Game
Any sport has rules. Disregarding the rules to be “free” does not result in free play. If there were no limitations on how and when a defensive end could hit a quarterback, things would soon get ugly. If there were no penalties for going out of bounds in a sport, then there would be no effort to stay within the lines (and no heated arguments about whether the player’s foot was in). Fans would soon lose interest.

Now, all sorts of strange rules have accrued over the years in various sports. Why is the shot clock in the NBA 24 seconds rather than 25? I don’t know. It just is. But it’s a better experience when everyone agrees to the same seemingly arbitrary number. Playing within the rules of a sport, rather than trying to change them as you go along, can lead to the beauty of the game.

In 2017, I started the “One-Minute Homily,” a series of video reflections on social media for The Jesuit Post. Saying something of substance in a short amount of time takes a lot of work. Someone once said, “If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready today. If you want me to speak for just a few minutes, it will take me a few weeks to prepare.” Similarly, I can stand up anywhere and start talking. That’s not a problem (well, except for the people who have to listen to me gab). What takes work is figuring out what is worth saying and what I need to cut. And when I have only a minute, I have to cut the obvious—the crazy stuff and the boring stuff. But I also must cut the decent-but-not-great stuff. It is painful.

Playing within the rules of a sport, rather than trying to change them as you go along, can lead to the beauty of the game.

But it forces me to get better. The time limit pushes me to get to the point. I don’t always strike the right balance between brevity and substance. Still, I’m more likely to convey a message in a format that people with a limited attention span (like myself) might watch until the end.

In “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis writes about how sometimes Christians “are tempted to keep the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length.” Still, the pope writes, Christ wants his followers to “stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness.” Francis continues, “Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated.”

What a perfect phrase—wonderfully complicated. Taking on responsibility and entering the messiness of people’s lives will bring complications. But it is a higher form of living. It is wonderful to be part of a cause bigger than ourselves.

It’s not easy to run up against our constraints. We miss the free time we used to have. We can lament the heavy load of responsibility. When we run into obstacles, we often don’t see them as learning opportunities. Instead, we might see them as roadblocks. We complain.

We can focus on all that we are missing out on. But if we scratch a little deeper, we can also see what we gain. The things that seem to constrain us are the very things that free us.

This essay is an excerpt from Father Rossmann’s new book, “The Freedom of Missing Out: Letting Go of Fear and Saying Yes to Life.”

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