If It Doesn’t Make You Crazy, It Will Make You Strong

Springsteen delivers a speech as compelling and thought-provoking as any of his songs. His words echo louder every day.

We talk a lot about Bruce around here.

Springsteen is one of those topics — one of those humans — that gets us going. We read about him, we see him live, we argue about his best and worst songs, we dream up set lists, and we dive into his catalog frequently.

Bruce is one of those guys who doesn’t haphazardly fill silence. It’s all deliberate. Every word, every note, every coda has a reason. He somehow finds a way to articulate the most indescribable feelings. He figures out how to make you — us — feel like he’s riding shotgun, futzing with the radio, trying to get the soundtrack of life just right.

From Growin’ Up with Greetings, to proving it all night, through the Tunnel of Love, all the way into The Rising, Springsteen’s songs run a calloused finger along the edges of our damage and desire, asking questions and offering answers along the way.

For those that love him, he’s intimate and comprehensive. He puts complex emotions into simple stanzas, putting faces and names to the ghosts of loss, ambition, fear, and hope that haunt us all. Mary, Candy, Sandy, Rosie, and Janey are as familiar to us as our own ex-flames. He’s a master storyteller. Which is why, when he talks, we listen.

In 2012, he delivered arguably one of the best South by Southwest (SXSW) keynote addresses ever given. It is filled with anecdotes of music lore, life lessons, and self-depricating humor — classic Bruce. If you have never watched or listened, I highly recommend it. But if you have, and you’re anything like me, you’ve been thinking about his closing remarks since the first time you heard them. Lou’s mentioned it here before, but I think they’re really just coming into view for me.

Without giving too much away, Springsteen ends his talk with a call-to-action of sorts. He says “Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong.”

For a long time, I thought I knew what that meant: two completely contradictory ideas. I thought he meant something like “work life balance” or “indulge, but in moderation.” But, the older I get, the more I realize that he was thinking bigger than that. He always is.

There’s an old teaching called “Two Pockets” that an old friend told me about a long time ago. The idea is that everyone in the world has two pockets. In one are the words “For my sake the world was created,” and in the other are the words “I am but dust and ashes.” The first is meant to remind us that anything is possible; we are capable of greatness. The latter keeps us humble, understanding that we are just one piece of a vast universe.

Two contradictory ideas. A tale as old as time.

It takes a long time for things to come full circle. When I first heard the Two Pockets story, it really stuck with me. The idea that you have to allow for good and bad, greatness and failure, light and dark — balance — to be centered seemed logical enough, but I hadn’t put it to practice yet.

It was a couple years later when I heard Bruce’s speech for the first time. Two contradictory ideas in your head and heart sounded like madness. But again, I kind of understood. Heart stuff, and brain stuff are never the same. Getting those two to agree is a rare thing. Wisdom is being able to hear them both, really listen, and move your feet anyway.

Bruce at SXSW, 2012

I am by no means “wise,” but the older I get, the more I understand that you have to have two pockets, two contradictory ideas, and believe them both. You need boundaries to achieve freedom. You can give love, and give space. You can be an adult, with childish tendencies. You can question what you’re doing, and know you’re exactly where you’re meant to be. You can try your best, and not be your best.

It’s a complicated thing to recognize, and a gut-churning practice to hold. But this is the hard stuff that makes us grow. Figuring out how to be comfortable in this in-between space of uncertainty, this liminality, is where we become more of ourselves. This is how we level up. And wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say, each year, that we slowly became more of who we are? And that the hard stuff helped with that?

“You are the baddest ass in town, and, you suck!” Bruce said. I am but dust and ashes, and the world was made for me.

It’s not one or the other, it’s both. All the time.