Despite leaving university with a newly-minted mathematics degree in my back pocket a passion for music saw me take a cool but unlikely first step up the career ladder. I stacked shelves at a hip London record store.
A colleague and I shared a love for all things Bruce Springsteen and one afternoon I accepted her invite to hang out and listen to a treasured Boss bootleg.
As the musical genius of Springsteen and his E-Street band battled bravely with this illicit vinyl’s cocktail of scratchiness, unwanted echoes and untimely fades she nonchalantly rolled a joint and lit up.
Like my idol, though, drugs were definitely not my scene. So while we listened to the record through the narcotic haze separating us I did my best to engage in polite conversation.
I remember volunteering – from the heart – that “Springsteen is the only other person I could ever imagine wanting to be.”
Her response, wordless and still haunting my memory to this day, was a crushed look of incredulity that screamed: “I want to be anyone else but who I am!”
Perhaps it was the ganja talking with such a piercing silence. But there was no such excuse for my equally wordless response – I just didn’t have a clue what to say next.
At the time, I assumed my general joie de vive mirrored Springsteen’s publicly buoyant persona. But 30 years on it seems that what I saw in my friend’s eyes was a more accurate echo of what was going on in the mind of the rock and roll superstar.
At the very time I was gleaning a much-needed whiff of redemption from his songs, the Boss was playing his marathon concerts driven by “pure fear…self-loathing and self-hatred,” New Yorker editor David Remnick reported in a recent interview piece.
But a real sense of liberation seems to kick in whenever he is on stage. He told Remnick: “You are free of yourself for those hours; all the voices in your head are gone. Just gone. There’s no room for them. There’s one voice, the voice you’re speaking in.”
I was reveling in the liberating joy of his performance.
He was reveling in a brief interlude of freedom from the voices in his head.
Some people facing similar problems might be crushed by such a weight of self-condemnation, but Springsteen has channeled something so potentially destructive into a creative energy that has profoundly touched millions of lives around the world.
Both scenarios point to a very real need to find a way out – a way to quieten or, better still, silence the voices of self-criticism, no matter how severe and familiar they have become.
In the years before and during university I’d had a persistent argument going on in my head – a relentless, intrusive dialogue for and against – that repeatedly undermined my sense of peace.
But soon after graduating I found things could change. I adopted a spiritual practice. I found it calming to start each day by reading sacred texts. I learned how to take quiet time to still my thinking even in the flow of my busy day.
As my spiritual perception increased, a kinder, gentler self-awareness began emerging. It spoke of God’s love for me and encouraged me to act more lovingly towards others.
In the three decades since, this sweet and supportive sense of assurance has become the more consistent refrain in my consciousness.
And it has offered me spiritual resources with which I can encourage others facing their own inner struggles – struggles which can lead to more than just the mental darkness. As a bulletin of the American Psychological Association points out, “habitual negative self-thinking” is one of the “unconstructive repetitive thought” patterns that can lead to “difficulties in physical health”.
This resonates with my experience. I’ve found that self-condemnation is one of the mental gremlins that can be identified and uprooted to help restore physical wellbeing.
I address that need with prayer. Not a pleading. But a protest. A recognition of the right of all individuals to see and experience themselves as the children of a Creator who doesn’t send or support mental or physical darkness but whose love, tangibly felt, eases it or even releases us from it.
One of Springsteen’s less frequently performed songs, “Cautious Man,”captures the struggle of a man torn between two inner voices – love and fear. Billy Horton finds himself “alone on his knees in the darkness” praying “for steadiness” but is still mentally pressured into walking out of his marriage.
But only briefly. “He got dressed in the moonlight and down to the highway he strode, When he got there he didn’t find nothing but road”.
Billy returns home with the realization that a coldness “inside him that he couldn’t name…would always remain”. And yet, in one of rock’s most beautiful articulations of a spiritual moment, Springsteen as narrator sings: “At their bedside he brushed the hair from his wife’s face as the moon shone on her skin so white, Filling their room in the beauty of God’s falling light”.
Can the coldness within Billy Horton really remain in the presence of such divine light? Is infinite warmth not sufficient to melt away even the most chilling of inner voices?
Voices which have only ever given us a false view of ourselves. Voices which have simply sought to conceal the profound beauty that is always there, inherently each of ours.
Voices that are never speaking on God’s behalf.
This was first published in the Washington Post’s On Faith section as “Can Light Outshine the Darkness of Self-Loathing”.