Tidings of Discomfort and Joy

If you’re the kind of person who rides Swine Flu twice in a row—for fun—then this column may not be for you. While the rest of us are going to great lengths to avoid discomfort, you crazy ‘type-two-fun’ people might just have it all figured out. 

The average person in our culture is obsessed with being comfortable. We wear comfortable clothes, sit in comfortable chairs in comfortable homes, and eat comfort food. We go out of our way to make sure all of our guests are comfortable, and we wouldn’t want the conversation to get uncomfortable, so we tiptoe around issues. Comfort is certainly something we work hard to find. And why not? It’s good to be comfortable. Always. Mostly. Right? 

My friend Craig has played the banjo for 42 years. As one of Canada’s top banjo players, he has toured and performed professionally for most of his life. Four years ago, in the middle of an epic recording session and a battle with a pinched shoulder nerve, his subconscious mind took over and said: “That’s enough—you’re done.” His body refused to let him play the banjo anymore. Doctors eventually diagnosed him with Focal Dystonia, a little-known condition that affects professional artists of all kinds. The brain’s motion map of a specific motion overlaps another one and the desired action becomes impossible. In Craig’s case, his brain involuntarily curled up the fingers on his picking hand, making it impossible to play. The causes are nebulous and understudied, but overtraining plays a factor, as well as mental health, and even childhood trauma. The healing process can be slow or impossible. Craig had to quit playing his beloved banjo, then guitar. As you can imagine, some hard years followed that loss. 

I am grateful to have friends like Craig who inspire me to grow. I ran into Craig this summer at a music festival and he told me that he has come to be grateful to Focal Dystonia. His diligent work on his mind, his heart, and his hands has brought him through a lot of discomfort to a place where he has been forced to look at childhood hurts he’d been pushing aside his whole life. As we were chatting at the festival I could see a lightness and joy in Craig that I’d never seen before. 

Nobody wants to go through hard times. We don’t will discomfort on others and we certainly don’t wish it on ourselves, but it’s rare to find good art that doesn’t grow out of the fertile ground of discomfort. One of the things that can make an artist great is our willingness to wade around in the emotional turmoil of life—groping for flashes of silver in the murky waters of pain. It’s not fun, but what we find often pushes us to new discoveries about ourselves and the world around us. If we are lucky, we can grasp a bit of those ideas and drag them to the surface to present to the rest of the world. If we are really lucky those ideas can help us understand ourselves enough to have a bit of a reprieve in the comfortable place before diving back in for more growth. 

The stereotype of the tortured artist has grown out of our propensity to live in the wild, dark places. Sometimes we get lost in there, or stop believing that the bright, joyful spots still exist. I don’t think we seek the hard places on purpose, but walking through them often feels like an important part of our journey. To make art that is authentic, and true to ourselves or true to humanity, we have to face these hard things and tease those lessons into the light. 

My friend Craig did not choose his trials. We shouldn’t run headlong into hardship, but neither should we cling desperately to comfort. If we do, we won’t be able to face the things that will eventually become our stepping stones. Discomfort pushes us to move, to grow—as artists, as humans. For me, my best ideas, my best art, and the most satisfying projects all come from digging deep, from letting the fear and anxiety and self-doubt wash over me and stepping forward regardless. 

For Craig, he’s reinvented himself into an upright bass player and is having a blast.  The day I was talking to him someone handed him a guitar and he laid down a blazing solo; his guitar playing is starting to come back, too. Hopefully the banjo playing is next.

Disclaimer: Everyone needs connections and community to make sure they don’t get lost in the dark places. If you’re struggling and need help, please reach out to a friend or to a mental health hotline. You are not alone. Call the free BC Mental Health support line: 310-6789.