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Gooding taking a selfie

No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell. – Carl Jung

I spend every spring/fall season playing rock ’n’ roll and speaking at high schools about “financial literacy”—a very unsexy and non-rock ’n’ roll-sounding term. Please read instead: hope, justice, income inequality—leveling the playing field for the least among us.

Our last 16 shows have been in and around Detroit, and we have been based out of Flint, Michigan, for most of April. Sometimes we play for schools with 95 percent free and reduced lunch. These are some of our favorite shows because the kids from these “rougher” schools are thrilled to have anything new come through town. They are hungry for a way out of communities filled with violence/drugs/alcohol/ lack of hope/lack of ownership, and you can feel this fire throughout the show.

These are children of incredible resilience. We play some schools that look and smell worse than prisons, where the bathrooms are locked between classes and the toilets are filled with trash, and yet these kids will smile and laugh and dance through the entire show. Despite everything these kids are up against, they are still young enough to be malleable, full of incredible hope and spark. But the more disappointments that befall them, the less they want to try. Soon they will no longer believe things can change, and therefore, why keep working against the all-consuming gravitational pull of poverty?

In her brilliant book The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer likens us touring musicians to sin-eaters. Like carnivals/gypsies of old, we move through town—in one day, gone the next—and people feel comfortable confiding in us things they would never tell a friend or family member. In Flint yesterday a student had the courage to say in front of the whole school, “We are poor. You know, it gets hard to believe anything is gonna change.” One-on-one, the kids speak of parents who are AWOL, parents who take the money these kids try to save for themselves, and sadly, much worse. Sometimes I will share with them some moments from my youth that felt insurmountable, and I often use one of my favorite sayings… “It’s the sand in the shell that makes the pearl.”

I remind them how many of my own heroes came from incredibly rare and difficult circumstances. Often it is people who struggle early on that become the avatars, the path breakers, the creators of a new way of doing things. People who think outside of the box ’cause they were thrown out of the box very young. No one around them had a compass or a map, so they made their own. They dug deeper than most of us ever have to go. Down in the dirt and down in the deep. They aren’t afraid of the dark because they were given no choice but to learn to live in that darkness. When it’s do or die, those who DO become old souls before their time. This is a blessing and a curse in itself. It requires incredible bravery, and often the friends and family you leave behind resent the living hell out of you. It’s a burden that often requires at least one mentor/role model/counselor to pull you through (those of us who are lucky can afford therapy sooner than later). But in the right hands, the very curse you are trying to avoid can be made into a blessing for others. Pain in and magic out. Grist for the mill. 1000x Easier said than done of course, but what other choice are they left with?

I’m a book nerd, and I love bios. It is almost without fail that in the early years of every hero I have studied, there is either a death in the family, a suicidal or alcoholic parent, abusive or depressed parents, a family that moves constantly, etc. All the musicians I admired growing up (Bono, Prince, Springsteen, Sting, Simmons, Willie, Cash) all had family members that died, left early, or froze them out. These people took that pain, they found out what they were made of, and they went on to work incredibly hard to reinvent themselves. They located their resilience and fire and traveled as far and as fast as possible from the pain their upbringing bestowed on them. The best of them have given back one thousand times over to others—which is the sign of real wealth in my book.

Would I much rather these kids we work with not have to face such insurmountable odds in the first place? Of course—that’s why we want them to understand discipline and finance well before it’s too late and they are indebted to a system that starts some of us on third base and forgets about the rest. But I have found it to be true that young people met with adversity have a rare (though brutal) chance at a gift that can simply not be realized without pain and the inevitable self-reflection to survive that pain with a soul intact. 

Unless you are up against the wall, you don’t know what you are made of or what kind of resolve you have. Having some pain to push and pull against can give you incredible strength IF you can come through it without blaming the world or losing hope. Sand in the shell makes the pearl. We sink into the mess we’re in or we (once in a great while) choose to break the chain and reinvent ourselves completely, hopefully bringing others up with us, helping and GIVING.

The cruelest of dreams says “You can’t do anything.”

Of all the students I’ve met, one stands above the others in my mind. She was a young woman with the word “valuable” tattooed across her entire arm. I asked her why, and she explained that her family told her she was a piece of crap, and she wanted to remind herself that is a pure lie.

Someone with this kind of light and tenacity might just save us all.

We are all valuable. But we are not so special that we shouldn’t have to take the pain. And God knows life has no shortage of it. And if it feels like there is a machine trying to roll over us, it’s up to us to jump up and grab the levers and change its direction. To change this world. I believe it’s likely it will be those who mastered themselves through adversity who will lead the way.

Here’s to our new friends up here in Flint and Detroit. We are in your corner. Detroit versus everybody. We are in the fight with you.

Thanks for reading, folks. See ya same time next week.


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