Let’s go back: it’s the day of my last album release. A year of DIY psychoanalysis, rice-and-beans budgeting, and humiliating sessions with Real Musicians has at long last culminated in these seven beautiful horcruxes being released into the digital aether in a modest attempt to satiate the world’s desperate need for more media. Does this make me a hero? A hero wouldn’t answer the question, so neither will I.
But many of you indie artists know the feeling: you’ve grappled up the mountain for months, a spotless ram tied awkwardly to your back; you’ve weathered hailstorms of self-doubt and firestorms of pragmatism, from budgets to deadlines. And behold, you’ve arrived at the altar! The sacrifice is prepared and offered up. It’s the day that you’ve been waiting for.
For me, though, almost every goal achieved and finish line crossed has been quickly followed by a season of melancholy, or at least vocational confusion. What now? What’s the point? As I shared in my previous blog post, I’ve come to interpret my creative work as an attempt, at least in part, to imbue the meaningless with meaning. Struggling toward some goal, particularly one that I deem noble, prevents me from actually sitting with the absurd, from staring into the abyss for any amount of time that might allow it to stare back into me.
Wired to Struggle
Friedrich Nietzsche, the patron saint of nihilism who committed his life to overcoming it, has something to say about this aspect of our nature. In On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), Nietzsche reconstructs a distant past in which so much of early man’s time is devoted to struggling: struggling with nature, whose frigid temperatures overwhelm his primitive technologies and whose saber-teeth pierce his squishy flesh; struggling with competing hominids, whose frequent ambushes dominate the Pleistocene and wreak havoc on his peace of mind. In this brutal state of nature, the victors are those who have developed a drive to struggle. In other words, the survivors are those who not only tolerate the struggle but actually require it, who have integrated the struggle instinct into their value hierarchy, their existential framework. Nietzsche suggests that one can’t be fully human without struggling with something.
When I’m not struggling with something outside of myself, I’m struggling with myself. This is the sinking feeling after the day that you’ve been waiting for. Because the struggle isn’t over—it’s only internalized.J Lind
But then came “the most fundamental change he [man] ever experienced—that change which occurred when he found himself finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace.” Primitive man became so wildly successful in struggling with these external forces that he actually overcame them, or at least organized them so that Carl the Caveman could, you know, go for a walk without worrying about a snow leopard ripping out his jugular or a rival tribesman clubbing him back to the stone age, i.e., back to his childhood. This relative civility, which has only improved over the eons (fact check pending), meant that man no longer had so many external forces with which to struggle. And yet the drive to struggle, the cognitive machine at the root of his success, continued to spin.
Nietzsche speculates that humanity’s instinctual need to struggle combined with the apparent lack of any external opponent had a tragic effect: the struggle turned inward. In lieu of leopards, man wrestled with his own nature, waging war with the very instincts upon which his core values had previously rested. (Nietzsche proceeds to target the foundations of morality itself, but I’m obviously too humble and good to do that.) For my storytelling, the point is this: when I’m not struggling with something outside of myself, I’m struggling with myself. This is the sinking feeling after the day that you’ve been waiting for. Because the struggle isn’t over—it’s only internalized.
Flashback to album release day. After a wild celebration (Facetime with mom), I’m left twiddling my thumbs in existential unrest. My struggle machine is cooking, and the heat is turning inward, the hottest it’s been in that direction for many months. With very few shows in the holiday season ahead, the prospect of a “break” is daunting. Sure enough, I’ll spend weeks riding waves of melancholy, even frustration, in the interim between projects. My emotional unrest suggests that I’d put so much stock in accomplishing the thing that I probably failed to appreciate the struggle itself.
And there are all kinds of wonderful days to be waiting for: graduating college, playing that show, marrying that person. Or the day that you’ve been waiting for might be much grander, even metaphysical: Nirvanic enlightenment, Marxist utopia, the Promised Land, the Second Coming. There’s no shortage of goals, and some good ones at that. But so much of the meaning of the experience, the real meat and potatoes of this adventure, seems to come from the struggle itself. The bulk of the plotline is about the pilgrimage, not the arrival. It really does seem like we’re hard-wired for the struggle.
So, the question that I’ve been chewing on is this: how might I choose to savor the struggle more and more, in all its unabashed brutal beauty? The Land of Canaan will probably always be on the horizon, in one form or another. But how can I cultivate joy while I’m still in the desert?
Kierkegaard has something to say about this, but I’ll save it for my next blog post. In the meantime, I at least have another day to be waiting for.
You can listen to J’s new song, “The Day That You’ve Been Waiting For,” here. And if you found anything inspiring in this post, it was probably an insight from Nietzsche or Kierkegaard that J conveniently forgot to credit. He’s one passionate amateur.