the risk of this
I have a file in a drawer of full of hate mail.
That is so weird to write.
This file has letters, emails, and notes I've received over the years from people who have found what I do to be so offensive and wrong that they took the time to let me know. These are a few of the lines that have stuck with me:
“That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard.”
“You are a waste of time.”
“You need to stop what you’re doing.”
The folder happened more by accident than anything. After rumbling with the anger, shame, and even the amusement they each evoked, I just stuffed them in a drawer. I didn’t intend to keep them but I’m glad I did because they remind me of something really important for those of us who make stuff like art, sermons, poetry, food, or anything else, and offer it to the world around us:
our work comes with a risk.
It's not the risk of people liking our work or not. I know that seems like the risk but the truth is there will be people who like what we do, people who don’t, and people who just don’t care. That’s just how it is. Surrendering to that reality was one of the toughest and most liberating things I’ve ever done. The risk I'm talking about is way bigger, deeper, and more painful than that:
it's the risk of having our hearts broken.
It's the risk of having the thing we’ve poured love and sweat into,
the thing that’s risen out of sleepless nights, hard fought battles, and painful wounds,
the thing that we’ve laboured over for hours and hours,
trolled and mocked, stomped into the dirt, and treated as garbage.
Maybe you know what Im talking about.
It hurts, doesn’t it? It took me awhile to figure why it cut so deep. I mean, it’s just something we made, right? But then, one evening while walking the streets of LA after a conference, really feeling the hurt, it hit me: the thing that’s being trolled and mocked isn’t just some thing we made; it’s not just our time and effort being stomped into the ground; that thing being treated like garbage is us. It’s us because the things we create are of us. They flow out of the core and essence of all that we are - our hearts. No wonder it hurts. We’re offering our hearts and having them broken.
Ive tried to find ways around this risk. At one point I didn’t think I had a choice. I was too beat up, too hurt, and too wounded to go another round. Whether it was experiencing complete dismissal of something I knew had substance, dealing with anonymous notes of criticism, or something else all together, it was a death by paper cuts. So I tried offering something other than my heart. I created stuff I didn’t really care about. But the thing is though, as safe as it was, doing that was even worse. I was just pretending and pretending is just another form of death. There was no joy in it and joy should be where it begins and ends. Despite how incredibly hard and painful it can be, I'd rather take the risk of having my heart broken than not offering it at all.
Maybe you're with me on that. Or maybe you don’t really know anymore. I get it. Ive been there and will be there again. That is the tension we have to live in because the truth is, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to suck. It’s going to be hard. But here’s the thing: if creating stuff is your joy, if that is the thing that brings you life, it means surrendering to that risk.
Surrendering isn’t easy but you can do it. Here are the three things I’ve used to help me live in that tension, overcome the pain, and keep going:
what we do is sacred work.
It's sacred work because what we do is confessional work. It’s what my tradition would call incarnational work. It’s taking what’s in our hearts and offering it to the world saying: “Here. This is who I am and what I have experienced. I want to share this with you.” In our curated world we need as much of that as we can get. We need more real. We need more honest. We need more human. We need it because we need to be reminded that being human, while full of pain and struggle, is a good and beautiful thing.
thick skin, soft heart.
That’s the mantra and the disposition I try to embody. Thick skin to weather the trolls, mockery, and stomping, and a soft heart to bend and stay whole, allowing me to be me and keep offering myself to the world. Whenever the hate mail arrives, whenever you feel the urge to give up and give in, and whenever you sit down to do what you do, remember, repeat, and embody: thick skin, soft heart.
Elisabeth Gilbert has this story in Big Magic (if you haven't read it, go do it) that talks about how during a Q&A with a successful novelist a man stood up and asked: "Madame, you and I have much in common. Just like you, Ive written stories and novels. The only difference? You are a successful woman of letters and I, despite trying my hardest, have never been published. My spirit has been crushed by the rejection and disappointment. Do you have advice for me? But please, don’t tell me to persevere. That just makes it worse, thats all people have told me to do." The famous writer replied, "I am sorry for your crushed spirit and disappointment. I can’t imagine how hard that is. And by God, of course I won’t insult you by telling you to persevere. In fact, I’ll tell you something else: quit." Everyone in the audience laughed but then grew silent when they realized she was serious. "I say this,” she continued, "because writing is clearly bringing you no joy. It only brings you pain. Leave this dream behind and find something else to do with your life, whatever that may be. Don’t write anymore because obviously it is killing you." Then, after a long silence, the writer added, "But. I will say this. If you happen to discover after a few years away from writing that you have found nothing else to take its place, nothing else that fascinates or moves or compels you to the same degree writing did, well then sir, I hate to say it, but you’re going to have to persevere." If this is the life for you, if you want to offer your heart to the world through whatever it that you do, you’ll need to persevere. May you struggle well and find the life and joy within it even when your heart gets broken.
Now, go. Do you. Let your fire out. Embrace the risk and remember: thick skin, soft heart.