'Encouragement' is a concept I've pondered a lot since I began to take my calling as a performing artist seriously.
We as artists say we want to encourage people. We as Christians say one of our goals is to encourage each other.
So how does an artist encourage someone? Especially if you're a dance artist -- one who performs without words? Anyone can write a song with the lyric 'don't give up,' but how do you communicate that clearly in dance? Do you bother trying to say something so abstract so clearly? What about all the art that deals with the hardships of life -- the stuff that actually resonates because it touches on things so deep yet so common? Can only sugary sweet, 'safe and fun' art encourage?
Yet in my own artistic intake I continually find myself going back not to the happy, smile-a-minute songs, but to the ones that acknowledge -- no, press into -- deep pain. My favourite Terry Scott Taylor album of all time was written out of the loss of his grandfather and his oldest child within months of each other. It was in these expressions of melancholy and frustration and deep pain that I found solace. It was these songs, these albums, that gave the me courage to keep going. It was that knowledge -- that at least one other person on the planet, at at least one point in their life, had felt this despondency -- that kept my own despondency from swallowing me.
I came up against this concept again last year when, in the most intense and prolonged mental/emotional/spiritual struggle of my life (thus far), my church hung me out to dry. They told me I was too negative. Many stopped speaking to me, and those who didn't made no secret of their frustration with my despondency and repeatedly told me, 'you need to be happier,' 'you should be over this already,' 'you're not trying hard enough.' One person in leadership actually told me (in writing), 'Kate, it is your responsibility to encourage people by being happier.'
I was dying -- literally dying. And all they told me was 'it's your fault we don't give a crap about you.' They wanted me to earn what they should have been giving freely.
The other day, out of nowhere, the thought struck me: does 'encouragement' exclusively mean 'making someone happy'?
If so, then why do I get more encouragement out of one song born out of deep pain than out of an entire album that is so cheerful it causes a sugar coma? Why does one make me take a deep breath, wipe the tears from my eyes, and say, 'thank you,' while the other makes me writhe in near-physical pain from the confounded cheerfulness of it all?
Why am I encouraged by the things that acknowledge the brokenness and sadness?
Maybe because 'encouragement' is actually not so much about joy as it is about coming alongside someone -- walking with them, whether the journey is easy or not. Think of Sam coming alongside Frodo. It was dark, it was difficult, it was by no means happy. But Sam was an encouragement to Frodo because he was right there, literally beside him, sharing the experience of the darkness, even though he could easily have checked out and gone home. Maybe encouragement is about companionship and empathy, not fake smiles and fluffy words. Maybe encouragement is a lifestyle -- a commitment -- not something that gets switched on and off. (And I am almost certain that it's not dependent on whether you think the other person 'deserves' it or not.)
I've always said, since the very beginning of my career, that I wanted to do for others what my favourite artists have done for me. So that's my goal: one day, I want to be able to give the next wounded soul the same companionship and comfort -- the same encouragement -- that my favourite artists have given me.