When my brother graduated from high school in 2009, I took him to see Rob Bell speak. Bell was promoting his book Drops Like Stars, which is subtitled “A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering.” At the time, it was only the creativity part that interested me. I wasn’t so keen on hearing him talk about suffering. I was quite certain creativity could exist without it.
But it was Rob Bell, so I was still excited.
Everyone in the audience was given a note card and a bar of soap upon entering. Weird. But fun and creative, too, right? I assumed we’d be drawing something on the note card (Fun! I love to draw!), make a huge mess, and use the soap to clean up afterwards.
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Rob Bell spoke mainly about how suffering can be an excellent catalyst for art, because it connects us to other people by forcing us to understand their suffering through our own. He demonstrated this with that note card. He told us about a friend who had broken his arm and how he didn’t really understand what that friend had been through until he broke his own arm and suffered the same sorts of inconveniences.
So he asked us to write “I know how you feel” on our note card using our non-dominant hand. And since we all had done it, had all suffered the same inconvenience, he had us trade note cards with the person next to us as an exercise in empathy. (I ended up with my sister’s. I still have it.)
I was a bit disappointed. I had been expecting a more “creative” exercise, but I guess it was a way to pass the time. Whatever.
Intermission happened, and I could only stare at that bar of soap, wondering what sort of “creative” exercise we’d be asked to do. Wash each other’s feet? Take a bite out of it as a reminder to watch our words? Throw it across the auditorium? Send it to troops in Afghanistan or children in Africa? Give it to the homeless?
I had no idea.
When Bell took the stage one more, he began to talk more about suffering. It was a rather uncomfortable topic. I wanted to hear about art. I had come to hear about creativity, not suffering, and so far, I only knew about his friend with a broken arm and that I could write reasonably well with my left hand. I wanted to hear him speak about art, and all he did was talk about suffering.
And then it got even worse: he began to talk about the soap.
He told us to take our bars of soap and carve them. Not then and there, but sometime, when we were alone, to carve our bars of soap, to strip away the excess, to get rid of the nonessential, to reveal what was hidden within.
To make it into something new and beautiful.
He talked about suffering as a sort of “stripping away” of the unnecessary. It is painful, he said, but suffering reveals us. It makes us naked. It strips us of pretense and reveals who we truly are. He talked about how suffering causes us to let go of everything except the essential, and when all excess is eliminated, the beauty is revealed. It brings to mind that Michelangelo quote: “I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
He then showed us photographs of hundreds of soap carvings that people had made and sent him after attending his seminar. The photographs were cool, but...was suffering really necessary for art? I doubted that I really had to suffer in order to shave my soap into the shape of a flower. Even if I cut my finger in the process. The suffering seemed rather unnecessary.
The talk about suffering made me uncomfortable. It almost seemed to imply that suffering produced and inspired and drove creativity, and I was perfectly content to create without the baggage of suffering. I wanted my life to be as easy and as comfortable as possible. I couldn’t see any non-essentials in my life. It was all part of me, and I didn’t want to let go of any part of it.
I see now that I just hadn’t suffered enough at the time to truly appreciate what Rob Bell was trying to show us with that soap. The exercise seemed cute and crafty and like something a middle school art teacher might try, but I’ll admit that I felt a little cheated when I left the theater with an unused bar of soap and a used note card in my pocket. I thought I was going to be inspired by him.
Instead, I was just confused.
So I put the soap in my bathroom cabinet, and there it stayed. For six years.
I don’t see my brother very often anymore—our lives are just on different trajectories—so when he called and asked to visit yesterday, I was elated. We both love to make things, so when he asked what we should spend the day doing, I remembered that soap, decided that I had finally suffered enough to understand what Rob Bell was trying to say (and that my brother had, too), so…we carved.
I remembered those pictures Rob Bell had shown us. People had revealed and discovered beautiful things within those humble bricks of soap. And that reveal could only happen through the act of cutting into that soap, through taking away what had started as a part of the whole.
So I found a paring knife, unwrapped the bar, and began to carve, curling away ribbons and shreds. I had no idea what it was going to be until it was done—and then it was obvious.
It was a key.
My brother ended up with a sliver of moon, which I declared was a new moon. His bar was brittle and broke several times, so he lost much more of his original product than I had, but his finished product was beautiful nonetheless, and nothing like what either of us had anticipated it would be, or perhaps even what he had intended for it to be.
Because, as I am learning, our intentions don’t really matter very much. Despite our best efforts to make our lives to exactly as we want them to and exactly as we think they should, things break. And disappointment happens. And the unexpected. And detours. And we are forced to endure this stripping away—it really is for our good—so that we can know what it truly is that we are meant to be.