Suffering For What You Love Is Your Best Way Forward
A few days ago I published the first song from my next album.
Admittedly, so much went wrong while I was trying to record it that I just wanted to give up (repeatedly) and not finish the album at all.
Sound glitches, software crashes, hardware crashes, etc. Random things were coming out of nowhere and keeping me from finishing the song. It felt very much like the universe was conspiring against me.
I was getting really angry. Not because of those specific issues, but because of the collection of similar issues that have seemed to crop up any time I’ve ever really made the conscious decision to move forward with my music.
So I got angry, threw my fits, shook my fist at the heavens, and the whole deal. But as I’ve been talking to you about for these past few weeks, I’ve finally crossed the point of no return.
I made the conscious decision that I would rather suffer to finish what I love, than continue to miss out on what I love because suffering hurts, and like anybody else, I would love to avoid it.
Face-to-Face With The Devil
When I was recording my video for the NPR Tiny Desk contest, the same kinds of things were happening. And that was where I really decided, “I’m going to finish this video, or I am going to die trying.”
It took a lot of takes. A lot of frustration. A lot of tantrums were thrown. I wanted to give up. But I got so angry at the cycle of resistance that I finally settled it in my heart: “I will die from the stress of making this video before I let the stress of making this video stop me. Period. That’s it. I’m not backing down.”
So I finished the damn video! You might see my “passion” really kick in at around the 2:40 mark. I’m playing and singing, but I’m also speaking to whatever this “thing” is that keeps showing up whenever I try to move forward. I’m telling it, “I don’t care what you put in front of me. I won’t stop until I die.”
That approach might seem weird to some people. But personifying negative thoughts and feelings has been one of the most helpful tactics in keeping me out of depression, and helping me stick to the things I want to accomplish.
In church we call it the devil. It’s helpful to think of resistance as an “enemy” because it gives you a manageable target—something you can aim at. You are looking it at it, not like abstract thoughts you can’t control, but like a “being” you can stand your ground against, who has only one goal: steal, kill, destroy. More than that, it’s a “being” you can look in the eyes and say, “Fuck off! I’m moving past you, and you’re not going to stop me.”
I’m not here to argue about whether or not the being exists, you can do that on your own time. Perhaps it’s as silly as standing in a mirror and saying, “I’m a great musician and I will be successful.” But if you ask people who are willing to look stupid enough to do that, they will tell you that personifying these things helps a lot.
I’ll talk more about that more in a future post.
What Are You Passionate About?
It’s interesting. The word passion comes from the Greek word pathos, which means “to suffer.”
That’s how you really find out what you love: What are you willing to suffer for?
I’ve suffered for my writing, and I’ve gone through moments where I’ve just wanted to run away and not do it anymore. But no matter the amount of suffering, there is this invisible thing that always draws me back to it.
When the Apostle Paul said, “We are compelled by the love of Christ,” that word compelled means urged, or forced. It’s to the point where it’s a decision, but it’s also really not because you couldn’t escape the urge to do it if you tried.
That’s how I feel about my music and writing. I am compelled to write and make music. I choose to, but I also couldn’t choose not to if I tried. So many times I said, “I’m not doing this anymore! Every time I try to take a step forward I get thrown back. I’m done! This is it!”
…There I am with a guitar on my lap, a pen in my hand, and I’m crafting a new song from my suffering. The love of writing and music forces me to keep going.
What Are You Willing To Suffer For?
When people ask “What is your passion?” they often elaborate by asking, “What do you love so much that you would do for free?”
I would do writing and music for free. I’ve mostly done those things for free for the past decade. But is that really all passion is? I would eat cookies for free if you gave them to me, but I don’t feel like I’m passionate about cookies.
Here’s the real question: What do you love so much that you would willingly suffer for over and over again?
When we look at a person’s art and we say, “Wow! They have so much passion!” it’s easy to think they were just born with insane amounts of talent. What we usually mean by “they have passion” is that the love they have for their craft is really easy to see. And it is! But that passion comes from the suffering they’ve endured to get to that point. It’s usually suffering we never saw because it happened behind the scenes. That suffering has become a part of their art because it is a part of their journey—a part of them.
I recently discovered Julien Baker’s music, and I instantly fell in love. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen such obvious and contagious passion in somebody’s music. You might think I was an incredibly sad person by how much I enjoy writing and listening to sad songs. But the enjoyment for me is that It’s easier to get a sense of passion because the sadness openly projects the suffering the person has gone through. I don’t mind upbeat songs about dancing and parties, but tell me something personal. What is your life like behind the scenes? One human being to another, what have you gone through?
What I’m saying to you is don’t be afraid to suffer for the things you love and enjoy. And don’t be afraid to share that suffering in the things you create. That’s where passion is seen and viewed with reverence.
Running Into Suffering
Don’t expect to completely avoid suffering if you are pursuing the things you love, because it will hit you even harder when it inevitably shows up. For much of my life I would love things, but whenever I hit resistance I would run away. I wish I would have stood my ground more.
Some of that was due to what I learned in church: people say God will sometimes stop you from getting something if it’s not in his will for you to have. So if I reached for something and got hit with resistance I would automatically conclude, “God doesn’t want me to have this! I guess I’ll sit and wait!“
I sat and waited for money when I lost my job last summer. More money didn’t show up in my waiting, instead I lost what little money I had left. (isn’t there a parable about that?)
Interestingly, in the Bible when God had things for people, he said, “Hey, I have this great thing for you. It’s over there. Go get it…Oh yeahhhh…by the wayyyy… there’s an army of 100,000 warriors you’ll have to go through first. But I’ll be with you [[whatever that means]], and when you deal with them the reward is all yours!”
Welp. I better get to it!
Nobody WANTS to suffer
Suffering is guaranteed to hurt every time, so of course we have a natural inclination to avoid it, the same way we instinctively pull our hand away from a flame.
I would love everything with my writing and my music to be easy, make me lots of money, let me pay my bills, debts and then live my life in peace.
I would still LOVE writing and music if that happened, but I don’t think there would be as much passion in it because most of what I write about is a body full of battle scars I received on my way to the goal. If everything was handed to me without suffering I would still get my reward, and maybe think, “Neat!” But I would probably do my art half-assed from then on out, and I’m not sure as many people would connect to it. That’s all guesswork, though.
The only thing I can think to compare it to is videogames. Most games have cheats you can use to make your character super strong, have infinite life, get all the best gadgets at the very beginning of the game, and all kinds of things that make the enemies meaningless (It’s usually called “God Mode” because it literally makes you unbeatable).
Having all of that power is fun for a little bit, but you become bored as soon as you realize there’s no reward for moving forward, there’s no longer much point in continuing.
You’ve had it all handed to you upfront. There’s nothing to get angry over. There’s no anger to provoke that stubborn determination to keep going until you beat that bastard of a boss. You avoided all of the frustration, sure, but now you’ve also missed out on the most enjoyable part of the game: reaching the end, looking back at all you had to go through to get there, and getting to say, “I fucking did it!”
The suffering itself doesn’t suddenly become more fun. You don’t suddenly want to go around looking for suffering (I hope), but you do look back and you see that your “present suffering is not even worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us.”
See, what I create on my journey to the reward will be so much better when the blood, sweat and tears of my suffering are bleeding out of it. And those who suffer the same will look on, see, hear and feel the passion, and say, “That’s me! That’s what I’m going through! That’s what I’m suffering with! I’m not alone! And I can make it because this guy made it!”
Now you’ve succeeded in doing one of the most incredible things in this life: you made a genuine connection with another human being. And do you know what the word for co-suffering is? Compassion.
But what about those who haven’t been through exactly what you’ve been through? They will still look on in awe, because we recognize passion. Even when we don’t understand it, we do understand what suffering looks and sounds like, and it softens our hearts, it provokes us to action, it compels us to love.
Don’t Be Afraid
People who are afraid to suffer often end up as those that cause suffering to others. Not necessarily because they are bad people, but because they are afraid to be treated badly, and they will do anything to avoid it, even if it means treating others badly first.
But those who are willing to suffer, who don’t run around seeking it, but aren’t afraid to endure it when it comes, are often those who are able to relieve the suffering of others because of the compassion they’ve developed along the way.
I want to be the latter. Therefore my suffering is not only about creating better work, but about becoming a better, more compassionate, more loving, more beneficial person to other people. I want everything I touch to benefit the next person that touches it.
Don’t be afraid to suffer for what you love. If you let it, it will work great things in the background of your heart and mind that will pay off tremendously in due time (Galatians 6:9).
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:3
So the question again is this: What do you love so much that you are willing to suffer for it?