To get where I’m going, I first need to invite you to my pity party. Please come, and please bring some levity.
Beware the Ides of March
The date is March 3rd. I wake up to a buzzing phone. I’m on tour in Chicago, and about a dozen folks text me to see if I’m alright. Apparently a tornado just ripped through our neighborhood in East Nashville.
Driving down our street that night feels like driving into the Twilight Zone. Debris litters the streets, the power is out for blocks, and the iconic Basement East is lethally scarred. The sky is still menacing, as if to say there’s more on the way. There is.
Pulling into my driveway, I watch a passing car knick a possum. Though possums are the children of Beelzebub, a slowly dying animal always gets me. It clearly has a marathon of pain still ahead of it, so I go looking for a shovel and come back with a brick. I reflect on my relapsed veganism and summon the full protection of my fragile machismo ego. Lord, beer me strength.
By the time I get all the blood out of my shirt, it’s time for another tour. But a few days into the 30-show run, the pandemic leaves me stranded and gig-less in DC. The 10-hour return journey also has me nursing a boil that will go on to flirt with a staph infection, at least until two consecutive antibiotic shots in the buttocks bring me to life, a la Evanescence. I am woken up inside. Out comes a new song.
Writing to Redeem
For me, and maybe for you, this sort of compulsive creativity in the wake of the absurd is almost routine. For as long as I’ve written songs, I’ve viewed creativity as an exercise in redemption, albeit a haphazard one. While writing this new song, I referenced my precious boil, and I even tried to squeeze in the possum, just to find/force some purpose into the whole mess. This leads me to think that, on some level, my need to create is motivated by my unwillingness to sit still in the face of meaningless suffering. Because, if I can write about the absurd in a song, then surely it wasn’t so absurd after all? As in, there simply must be a purpose to the evidently purposeless if it leads to some sufficiently moving macaroni art.
But while this strategy of creative “redemption” might help me cope with something awful, I don’t think it makes the thing itself any less awful. No amount of songs will redeem the devastation of the Nashville tornado. And that possum could never and would never care about my latest Spotify ballad.
Quarantine has given me some space to reflect on the shadow of my meaning-making process. For the last eight months, the collective pseudonymous works of Søren Kierkegaard have been helpful. The Danish existentialist covers a lot of terrain, but one idea that I’ve found particularly helpful / disturbing is his notion of faith. In one of his early hits, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard dissects faith in order to show himself, along with all of enlightened Christendom, that faith is an exceptionally difficult task—more than enough for one lifetime.
On some level, my need to create is motivated by my unwillingness to sit still in the face of meaningless suffering. J Lind
Kierkegaard’s discussion centers around the notorious “knight of faith,” the extraordinary or maybe especially ordinary person whose life is marked by two simultaneous “movements.” (Yes, he keeps the lingo of the philosophers of his day in order to make his dense authorship even less comprehensible.) The first “movement of infinity,” as he calls it, is one of resignation. The knight of faith must resign themself to the earthly impossibility of the promise at hand, the promise whose fulfillment is their deepest desire. Abraham must recognize and feel the weight of the fact that killing Isaac will make it humanly impossible for him to be the father of a people as numerous as the stars in the sky, just as Mary must appreciate the impossibility of conceiving a child as a virgin. If they don’t sit with the impossibility of the promise, then they’re not “knights of faith;” they’re just naive.
Leaping to Resignation
This quarantine (as opposed to other quarantines), I’ve questioned whether my creative process has ever been marked by Kierkegaardian faith. In being so quick to reach for the pen, I don’t think I’ve really resigned myself to the genuine impossibility of the task at hand. Because I don’t think that any song can imbue devastation or death with meaning, or at least not with sufficient meaning to make either worthwhile. No number of sermons can bring back Job’s children, just as no number of Renaissance paintings can justify the crucifixion.
This leads us to Kierkegaard’s second movement, the “leap of finitude.” This is where the knight of faith, having resigned themself to the impossible, makes a groundbreaking “double-movement.” (Again, I’m sorry that Kierkegaard is so unapologetically enlightened.) This second movement involves believing that God will do precisely the impossible: the promise will be fulfilled by killing the very son on which the promise depends. God will surely raise Isaac from the dead, even though that’s absolutely ridiculous. Mary will have a child even though that’s, you know, biologically impossible. And it’s probably the absurd impossibility underpinning this movement that leads Kierkegaard to believe that genuine faith is exceptionally rare in the modern world. No, I don’t think he would count Sean Feucht’s viral worship rallies.
In sum, or at least according to my reading of Kierkegaard, each of us has the terrible responsibility of working out our faith with fear and trembling. I’m no father of existentialism, but I really don’t think I’m anywhere close to that absurd double-movement. Do I lack faith? I don’t even know if that’s the question to ask, much less how to answer it. But if Kierkegaard is onto something, then it seems like it’s at least time to meditate on that first movement that I’m so quick to forego: the movement of infinity. The leap of resignation. Sitting with the full weight of the meaninglessness, terrifying though it may be.
Maybe that’s the only way into the Land of Canaan.