Anxiety of Influence

“What was your most original thought from your talk?”

I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This means, among other things, that I am sometimes asked to give a talk, or a 5-10 minute sermon/ speech about one particular gospel topic. I was recently asked to speak about self-reliance in four wards (congregations). I enjoyed the assignment; I was able to speak on something about which I am passionate and was accompanied by my mother who spoke on the same topic.

Everything went as expected until after the last talk I gave. One brother came up to me and complimented my talk. Then, he asked that question. What was my most original thought in the talk? He is a psychiatrist, so maybe he is used to probing questions to encourage discussion, but I am not one of his patients and I was surprised. For the talk, I had read several scriptures and quoted various apostles of the Church, so my mind stretched to think of something I had said that came from just me. My conclusion? I couldn’t find anything I said that had been original to me.

“I guess I followed the long tradition of using other people’s words to describe how I feel,” I finally replied. He laughed, said that was an original answer, and left me alone, presumably to ask bizarre questions to more unsuspecting people.

What does it mean to have an original thought? One of my final courses at university concerned philosophy. One of the most interesting things I remember was the way that new philosophical eras developed. Philosophers in different parts of the world would, without communication, develop similar ways to explain the world. In my head, I saw modernism evolve into postmodernism in the way that a generation of strict parents gives birth to a generation of permissive parents. Different children, each experiencing the same generational strictness, react with new methods of parenting that resemble each other because they are a reaction to the previous generation’s general parenting practices. We take that one step further and look at the previous generation’s reaction to their parents’ methods and it is common to see relationships form as new generations echo generations long past.

If each paradigm shifts are reactionary, and if they echo ideas thought of in previous generations, can they be original? No. An original thing must, by definition, be the first of its kind. That is why I am skeptical when I hear about “original” ideas or stories. Ideas and stories do not come from a vacuum, so original ideas must be truly creative. They must create a new thing from nothing.

Consider inventions- they take something that exists and make it better or easier or usable by humans. Talking becomes radio and telephones. Walking becomes riding animals and cars. The only exceptions I can think of are old inventions such as lying, art (including music), and money. With such a low number of truly original inventions, if we are sticking to a strict interpretation of the meaning of “original,” it is no wonder that truly original inventions and ideas are more of a rarity than we usually acknowledge.

So, why did it bother me so much to be asked what my most original thought had been in a talk? Perhaps it is because I feel like he was misusing the word, but mostly it was because I balked at the expectation of originality. People want something different and new. But in a world saturated by centuries worth of information and the ideas of billions of people all around the world, expecting originality is a tall order.

The entertainment industry is an example of the expectation of originality. People seem to need a gimmick of some sort. Just look at Lady Gaga- she is a great singer and songwriter, but she didn’t make it famous until she started wearing scandalous outfits and hairstyles and playing on the shock factor. Looking barely outside the entertainment industry and toward the White House, we have President Trump. He was different, he was loud, and he was elected into presidency of the United States of America. (Also, talk about reactions- he is the exact opposite of President Obama, who was so different from President Bush, who was so different, etc.)

We are always looking for something different. Artists are supposed to stand out. Businesses need a competitive edge. Movies, books, and other media are supposed to fill their unique niches. Some break the rules, but each person or work or art are subject to the public eye and the public can be fickle. Movies that fit many genres are either loved or hated. Music that breaks rules is either ruled “good” or “bad.”

What does this mean for me? It means that while writing, I have to be aware about the genre I am writing, the audience I am speaking to, and either have to fit or not. I have to choose my influences, my audience, and my backdrop. Nothing comes out of a vacuum, after all. So, my story must fit into some boxes to be explainable and therefore marketable, but to be relevant, it can’t be like everything else in its genre.

Caught between the expectations, it is only natural that I resent questions about original ideas. Maybe what I said wasn’t original. Maybe what I write isn’t original. I doubt that my voice and opinions and stories are alien to the readers. But I don’t think that’s necessarily such a bad thing. Postmodernism may not have been wholly original, but it influenced lives and policies. Maybe my contributions will not be original, but I will do my best to use the old to get people to be a little better. If you expect originality, you’ll have to forgive me. We’re all human, after all, and we’re all living in the echoes of the past.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay