In This Episode: I still feel his pain, and I will until I die. But strangely, feeling that pain led me to resolve, not fear. That taught me that my pain could be a good teacher.
093: The Best Books were Never Written
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- The video and photos mentioned are within the transcript. The video was released in April 2019.
- The website for the One Voice Children’s Choir.
Welcome back to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.
The best songs were never sung.
The greatest poems that pierced hearts were never published.
The greatest artist ever didn’t capture what was in her mind.
The best music was never played.
The best performances were never acted.
The best books were never written.
And, yeah, the best podcasts were never made.
Even if those works of art were created, most disappeared because their creators were afraid to submit them to public view, to offer them for publication, to let them out of the drawer where they were hidden away. They were trashed, burned, lost.
“I’m not talented enough.”
“It’s not good enough.”
“I’m too old.”
Or the classic, “It’s not ready yet.”
It all comes down to fear.
Where does fear come from?
My favorite song about pain — an oxymoron I know, but there’s the human brain for you — is Believer. My favorite version of it is not from the band that had a huge hit with it, Imagine Dragons, but rather the version from a nonprofit children’s choir in Utah called the One Voice Children’s Choir that grew out of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Children singing about pain? You bet, and when they belt out lyrics like “my life, my love, my drive, it came from pain,” yeah, they know what they’re singing, and they put feeling into it because they’ve felt the pain.
Pain is fortunately part of the human condition. Because it’s the people who push through the pain, take chances at putting their thoughts, their feelings, their art, out into the world for others to measure against those same feelings in themselves because they’ve felt that pain — that’s what makes a mark on the human condition.
That’s what art is: reflecting on the human condition whether it’s writing or paintings or songs or poems or even dance (dance is a very effective part of that choir performance).
“Pain: you break me down you build me up … you make me a believer” the lyrics say.
I’ll embed the video on the Show Page. It has nearly 200 million views, and only a half-million are mine. But watch it: you’ll know those kids, in age ranging from 4 to 18, have gone through pain; sure, most likely the older they are the more they’ve experienced. Yet in so many cases, it’s because of the pain we’ve all gone through that great art emerges.
We all have different things that give us pain, yet at some point most of us think we’re alone in our pain. We aren’t, and it’s imperative to know that pain is one of the building blocks of greatness. We just need to get past the fear and do what we were meant to do despite the pain, or because of it, because otherwise that art won’t be made.
I’m lucky in that I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 5, even though, looking back, I don’t quite understand how it was I knew that “writer” was a viable career choice. That thing that I was clearly meant to do wasn’t stomped down by my parents or teachers, though it was on the back burner for a long time until after a few years as a street medic, when it finally occurred to me that I needed to go back to school and develop my writing ability, because by then I had decided what kind of writer I wanted to be: a newspaper columnist.
It college, that specific dream was stomped down, but I was old enough to handle it. I learned in Journalism school that fresh-out journalists don’t get columns: they have to cut their teeth first as a reporter and I had zero interest in being a reporter. I wanted to write about what I thought, not about what I saw or, worse, about what other people said they saw.
It took a devastating divorce — a big sudden dose of pain — to make me push through and become the writer I wanted to be, even though by then I was in my 30s. I even got to be a columnist, because I figured out how to bypass the traditional newspaper ladder thanks to the Internet and write the column I wanted to write, to say the things I wanted to say, and my readers like it enough to support me so I can say more. Can’t get much better than that.
I won’t say there’s always a way, but that’s what innovation is: figuring out a way, or even inventing a way if you have to — and I had to to succeed.
As I wrote, I realized that the pain in my life enabled me to see the world more clearly. As a medic I helped people through very painful parts of their lives, and that opened my eyes too. I visited beautiful multi-million-dollar homes … and run-down slums, sometimes on the same day, and that opened my eyes, in part because I clearly saw that a person’s dignity, and humanity, weren’t actually related to their surroundings.
I was around 20 when I was with a woman not that much older than I was, who was watching her husband slowly die from cancer — with their young children by her side. And boy did that open my eyes. I still feel his pain, and I will until I die. But strangely, feeling that pain led me to resolve, not fear. That taught me that my pain could be a good teacher.
So at a young age I figured out that it wasn’t just my pain that drove me, but other peoples’ pain too. Damn was that eye-opening. Learning that I didn’t have to let my pain lead to fear was liberating.
There’s no guarantee that if someone pushes through the pain they’ll be a success. It’s that fear that holds so many back.
The truth is, the first book, the first song, the first painting — whatever — probably isn’t that great. But by not putting it out there for feedback to learn from, the creator can’t develop into greatness.
Not that those who reject our work are always right. Early in her career, actress Meryl Streep auditioned for King Kong. Producer Dino de Laurentiis muttered che brutta when he saw Streep (“how ugly”). Jessica Lange got the part instead. “It was sobering,” Streep said years later in a talk show interview. “I’m sorry I’m not beautiful enough to be in King Kong.” Today, she’s the Oscar award’s most-nominated performer in history.
During his lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh sold one painting. One. He didn’t have any idea of how successful he really was, but today his paintings and sketches bring in millions — if one goes up for sale. And there’s plenty in circulation: nearly 900 paintings and 1,100 sketches have been authenticated.
The key: they both refused to stop. If no one wanted their work, they just kept going anyway, getting better and better as they went on. Sure the rejection hurt, but they didn’t let the rejection stop them. They may have even been driven by it. They felt the pain but not the fear, or at the very least they channeled the fear into the energy they needed to move forward.
“I’m fired up and tired of the way that things have been,” says the Believer lyrics. That’s the birth of so much greatness. The pain is there and those kids are learning from an early age to get past their own pain, to push forward. And singing about what is really the human condition, and learning from that. Adults usually try to “protect” children from such ideas, but kids are already feeling the pain, and if we just get the hell out of their way they can do amazing things, as you’ll see in that video.
“Don’t you tell me what you think that I could be,” the kids sing. “I’m the one at the sail, I’m the master of my sea.”
The determination, the drive, the talent in those kids wasn’t pounded down, and already some are breaking out into amazing careers.
Another line from the song: “Seeing the beauty through the pain.”
So where does the Uncommon Sense enter in to all of this? You have a choice about what to do with your pain, which you will have because you’re human. You can let it defeat you, or you can apply Uncommon Sense and decide that if you have to go through pain, you may as well turn it to your advantage. You can do it if you push through, no matter how old you are.
Hell, a child can do it. Believe it.
The Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast93, which has a transcript, the video, and a couple of screenshots.
I’m Randy Cassingham, and yes, I’ll talk at you later.
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