Ep. 4 | Steve Bell | Capacity For Joy
~ Steve Bell
In this episode, musician and activist, Steve Bell, describes the trauma of his childhood in the face of his mother’s mental illness. His story twists and turns through his childhood to a top security prison, where inmates offered his family a haven for belonging and fired his passion for music and meaning.
Steve BellJuno award winning singer-songwriter, author and activist, Steve Bell grew up amidst his mother’s mental health struggles. His personal story of difficulties, suffering and loss, bring a unique wisdom to intimacy and relational connection. He’s emerged as an artistic advocate for truth and beauty. He’s a mentor for many and a compassionate, inspirational leader, both in his music and in his activist work as an ally for indigenous justice issues.
Transcript: Ep. 4 | Capacity For Joy with Steve Bell
Rachel Cram – Steve you’ve had a very busy weekend of lectures and concerts, so thank you so much for being with us.
Steve Bell – I’m glad to be here. Glad to be here.
Rachel Cram – Very kind of you Steve. At your concerts you occasionally mentioned challenges you faced growing up in the realities of your mom’s mental illness. As an educator, I know those early years are just so essential to your life. And so I’m assuming that must have been a little bit of a challenging upbringing for you. Yet here you are, so demonstrably loving and pursuing such joy. You really look like you’re functioning very well.
Steve Bell – I feel OK.
Rachel Cram – So I just thought, can you tell me a little more about that? Because sometimes we’re tempted to think people who’ve had some success in a particular area of life, people that seem to have it together, have got there because they’ve had minimal hardship. Life’s been pretty smooth. And often that’s not the case at all. So can you tell me a little bit more about your upbringing?
Steve Bell – Yeah yeah. OK. So my father’s a Minister. My mother was your sort of, very typical Baptist minister’s wife, played the piano. We had a charming life. We were good people. We had good friends.
Rachel Cram – Were you living in Winnipeg?
Steve Bell – No, it was in Drumheller Alberta. And we had a good and safe upbringing and loved by our parents and loved by our friends and neighbors, all that. And then one day, I was eight years old, my mother was coming out of the house. Us kids were sitting in the front yard having a front yard picnic with my dad and my mom. And she went in to get some lemonade. And she came back out and I remember she walking out with this tray of drinks and she just looked ashen faced. And then, she just call out my dad’s name and collapsed.
Ambulances came. And I kind of didn’t see her for six months after that. She had had a complete emotional breakdown, that obviously was building for some time. It was coupled with profound anxiety disorder and depression and it was brutal. And it just changed our life. It was just, it was a train that came out of nowhere and just decimated our family. Right. And you just – you make all these associations. So for me was traumatic because, why would this have happened to us unless something was wrong with us?
Rachel Cram – Mm hmm. So Steve, what fed that perspective do you think? Because that’s such a heavy load for a child.
Steve Bell – Yeah. Again, being sort of Christians at that time, the assumption is, if you’re good and you kind of do everything right, everything should go well for you. At least as a child, that’s how I perceived it. If you’re a good boy, Santa will bring you – you know gifts. And if you’re a bad boy Santa I’ll give you coal. My capacity for understanding what was going on was a little boy looking at it from these sort of other narratives and pulling those in and saying, therefore, if our lovely, beautiful, safe home was decimated, somebody is to blame. So that kind of threw me into that whole thing.
Rachel Cram – Now this is happening in the 1970s?
Steve Bell – Yes
Rachel Cram – With even less information and support for mental illness.
Steve Bell – Right.
Rachel Cram – So what happened to your mom?
Steve Bell – Well, this is back in the day of of heavy drug therapy and shock treatment. And they just pounded her. And she came back about six months later, she was almost physically unrecognizable, and would sit in the corner for months. I mean she would smile and tell us we were loved and all that kind of stuff. But my mom went away and I kind of never got her back. Not the mom I used to know. I got back another woman, who I have come to love very very much. But it was a death in a sense.
Rachel Cram – I’m thinking back just a few moments ago, to a comment you made about assumption Steve. And I’m wondering, how did your faith community respond to your family crisis?
Steve Bell – The church at the time had no real catcher’s mitt for mental disorder or mental illness. There just, they had no ability to, how to handle it. Especially in a pastor’s wife because we’re supposed to be faith people and faith means, in a sense, victory. Not, you know, not suffering. Lot of judgment. A lot of condemnation. A lot of very painful things said. A lot of alienation.
But the lovely thing that happened in all of that was, the government built a federal prison and they were looking for a chaplain. And they asked Dad if he’d become the first chaplain of this federal prison. And Dad was burnt out. And we were burnt out. We’re just obviously broken. And he just, he needed to do something else. And he said “yes.” More out of defeatism than anything. But here’s the gift. The inmates of the prison had no problem with my Mom being unwell. They just didn’t need her to be well. And their whole thing was, ‘We’re your people. Come hang out with us losers.’
And it was Canada’s most unwanted men that embraced the brokenness of our family. That really was profoundly healing. And ironically the safest place for us to be, with a bunch of other broken people, who just didn’t have any problem with brokenness.
Rachel Cram – Wow! Steve! Your story takes all these twists and turns. And it just makes me think, safety can come in really unexpected places.
Steve Bell – You know. I mean. Yeah.
Rachel Cram – Or people. There’s beauty in the truth of that.
Steve Bell – Yeah yeah yeah. Trust it.
Rachel Cram – Yeah.
Steve Bell – And, I think what I felt was really, in a sense, salvific for us.
Rachel Cram – Like a sense of belonging. You got invited in.
Steve Bell – Yeah. And so, when I think about capacity to love, however that’s been developed, and my capacity for joy, doesn’t mean no suffering. In fact, it’s almost more through it, right. Those things just kind of deepened in a way that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for that trauma and coming out the way it did.
Rachel Cram – Listening to you as a mother, I know for myself, and I think most, all moms, feel this way. You just want your child’s life be perfect. And you want to be everything you can for your child. So that they can turn out, like I think you’ve turned out Steve. Obviously, what happened with your Mom would never have been her choice.
Steve Bell – Right yeah.
Rachel Cram – Yet you still are where you’re at. How does, how would you describe that? Like well, what’s the wonder in that?
Steve Bell – Well I can take you, I can take you now to the other end of my story. My father, it’s interesting, he was diagnosed a couple of years ago with a deadly cancer, with no hope of sort of surviving it. And the only hope was that they could sort of make him comfortable and he might have two years. That kind of thing. And pain came. It was very very painful.
And I remember – I remember going in to visit my Dad and he’s lying in his bed and he’s asleep. And he’s shuddering in his sleep because of pain. So as he’s breathing out, it’s like a shuddering breath of pain. And I’m just looking at my father. I’m just weeping. And and and he wakes up. And he sees me suffering because of his suffering. You know, and I had blurt, I said, “Dad, this is so unfair! You’re a good man! Like, if anybody deserves a good, you know, noble exit, you do.” Right.
And he goes, “Oh Steve,” he says, “I’m not scandalized by suffering.” Now here’s a man who suffered his whole life, in the sense that, you know, he said ‘for better or for worse’ to my Mom, and nobody expects worse. But he got he got a lifetime of anxiety disorder, depression and you know, the stuff that my Mom – like, he’s suffered loss in his life. But it was really interesting he would say this. And I’m looking at him and say this. He says, “I’m not scandalized by suffering.”
And then he said, “everything I’ve wanted most in life, I’m getting in spades around this bed.” He says, “people that have never touched – me touch me. People that have never said tender things to me – say tender things to me. People have never kissed me – kissed me”.
He says, “I’ve wanted this kind of intimacy and tenderness my whole life.” He says, “I’m not despising this at all.” And then he said, “Who wouldn’t wish this on their best friend.”
Now, my dad and – nobody would say, suffering in itself is a good that we should go after. But there is some principle of the cosmos, where something good comes when we don’t despise what’s going to come anyway, and that we seek the gift in it.
Rachel Cram – I love that perspective. I’m not sure that it comes naturally to us. I, I think that we, I guess we build through practice, through an intentionality at looking at life like that.
Steve Bell – Yeah.
Rachel Cram – We need a sustaining outlook. So how has ‘looking for the good’ and ‘seeking the gift’ affected your outlook Steve?
Steve Bell – Well I think for me, what I learned through that experience with my Mom and now with my Dad is, that there is a principle of goodness I think, behind everything that is. You can call that God. You can, you know, different faiths have different ways of sort of coming at that. But if that’s true, if you can have a faith in that foundational goodness, that’s part of the DNA of everything that it is, then there’s some part of you that can kind of say, “there’s no such thing as a bad day. Where’s, where’s the gift?”
And so, of course, I would rather choose not to suffer than to suffer. And I would choose to spend my life fighting injustice so other people don’t have to suffer. But suffering itself is not the problem. And suffering often is actually the way that we find the deeper gifts that connect us to each other, that connect us to a deeper understanding of who we are in relationship to each other, in the cosmos and to the divine.
There’s a mystery in it and we shouldn’t try to be too eager to explain it away in rational terms because it can’t be done.
Rachel Cram – Steve, you’re a parent to four children. So as you’re raising them and you’ve, you have an awareness of how depth comes through suffering, and joy can come through suffering. And you’ve lived an unusually complicated life yourself, growing up in your family of origin. As you’re raising them, how does that affect you as you see them stepping into difficult situations?
Steve Bell – Well like anybody, I would kind of go through – I’ll jump through every hoop so they don’t have to suffer. Even with what I know, I’m always trying to rescue them from what me and my profound wisdom sees as bad decision making, or whatever. Right. So, the nature to still rescue from suffering is still good and right.
But I have to say sometimes, you know, I see them struggling financially or or this – you know, I’ve tried to have a sort of a discipline of keeping my responses to about 50 percent of what I really want to say. And to let them figure it out. My Dad, my Dad and my Mom did let us figure it out . They were not too quick to rescue us. And I certainly didn’t, have felt no anger to them about that. But they sort of trusted the process because it worked, because it was their experience. That it’s through those struggles, not around them.
If there is goodness at the center of all things, and I believe that’s true, then I reinterpret all events, in every day, under the light of that foundation.
Rachel Cram – You have so many beautiful albums that I love. There’s your Symphony Album that I think you did with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra? When I listen to that album as I’m driving, I frequently have to pull over because it is just so moving. And you have one song on there called The Dark Night Of The Soul. And as you’ve been talking right now, that song, I mean, I’m hoping we can even play it in this podcast with your permission.
Steve Bell – Absolutely. For a small fee.
Rachel Cram – Okay. All right. We’ll talk.
That song talks about starless nights. And I hear through your story, some experience with that. How would you relate that song to your your experience with dark nights and pursuing joy?
Steve Bell – Well, that song, it comes from a poem written by St John Of The Cross. He’s um.
Rachel Cram – Ok, that’s right.
Steve Bell – Yes that’s a 15th century poem.
Rachel Cram – With an incredible story about his horrible tourcher. Yeah. Can you tell it?
Steve Bell – It’s really interesting. And he came from a place where he was doing Monastery Reforms and some of the brothers in his own tradition didn’t like his reforms and like, literally imprisoned him in a cell about twice the size of this table, in utter darkness, for over a year. Tortured. Beaten. Complete deprivation. No light. No ability to read.
And it was in that darkness that he wrote this poem Dark Night Of The Soul, which is considered the pinnacle of Spanish poetry. But with him, he understood that it is through the darkness to the other side. Somehow he trusted that. He trusted goodness. And it was in that that he realized that somehow, to kind of pursue through it onto the other side, being sort of driven by the light in his own heart and using the internal light of love to guide him, in place of external light.
And he did come out the other side. He came out joyful and he came out wise. He came out full of poetry and beauty. If any man could have had the excuse to sort of indulge in ugliness after his experiences, he had the right because he was treated ugly. And he could’ve responded in kind and nobody could blame him. But he didn’t. He saw it as gift. Again, he understood this profound goodness at the center of all things. Therefore, this experience itself had something to offer. And he came out of that with some of the finest poetry and the most beautiful language that comes out of the Spanish tradition.
So you go back and you look at some of the great songs in history, some of the great poetry, some of the great literature, and you start looking at the lives of the people that wrote that stuff. Oh my goodness. It’s all through suffering.
Rachel Cram – We’ve seen that play out with Nelson Mandela.
Steve Bell – Oh yes.
Rachel Cram – In South Africa. Just how those years of imprisonment – what, 28 years.
Steve Bell – But that’s just a miracle. Right. But he’s not the first. And like that’s not actually an anomaly. Right. That’s actually – those people – every century has thousands of them. Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Teresa, who in her diaries says that she didn’t feel beautiful, spiritual, warmth her whole life. In fact she felt the exact opposite. She sort of felt she was kind of isolated, alone, but still became this beautiful ‘otherer’. And she didn’t use the suffering to alienate and isolate herself into a self-absorbed cocoon. She did the exact opposite. She turned the soul outwards to shine a light, rather than to be a black hole that sucked it all in.
Rachel Cram – I love that whole idea of othering in the context you’re using. I feel like I’m just hearing that word a lot now, but typically its in the context of determining others as different and inferior. You’re claiming othering as being oriented to the needs of others in a way that actually defines us, who we are.
Steve Bell – Yeah, like, what’s really interesting, when I’m lying on my deathbed, if I get to have a chance to really think about my life, and I started thinking about the things that I loved the most about Steve Bell, every single thing that I adore about me is a gift from someone else.
Rachel Cram – Can you give some examples?
Steve Bell – I’m a son. I couldn’t be a son without a mom and dad right. That’s a gift. It’s impossible. I’m, I’m constituted son by my parents. I’m constituted friend by my friends. I’m constituted spouse by my wife. I’m constituted father by my kids. I’m constituted grandfather by my grandkids. Everything that I actually love about me, about my life, that I appreciate, none of it resides in me. It’s all a gift from someone else.
And so this whole idea really comes down to then, the good life is the life of mutual constituting. It’s not my job to create Steve Bell. It’s my job to other you. To friend you. To spouse you. To, you know, mother you. To son you. Whatever it is that makes you who you are but requires me for that to be true.
And when you think about it, most things you love about yourself are gifts from someone else.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. I’m thinking that The Prayer of Saint Francis, ‘Grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood is to understand, to be loved as to love with all my soul. I think that’s what you’re saying.
Steve Bell – Totally. Yeah.
Rachel Cram – That you find yourself in giving yourself away.
Steve Bell – Yeah. Like, turn the light off yourself and change the direction to outside and moving the other way. And then trust the process. Not everybody is gonna do it back. Fair enough, right. Because we’re all broken and we’re all hurting. And not everybody is there yet. But, the great saintly lives are the lives that learn how to turn that light away from themselves and project light and beauty, goodness into others. It’s powerful! It’s powerful! When we do this for each other, when we, when we sort of, I call it ‘mutual othering.’ When we operate in that sense, something else happens that I think the world needs profoundly. Really, in the end, I think spirituality, I mean there’s so many great definitions but really what it is, it’s the capacity for the other. And that could be human other, or it could be physical other, like nature. In fact, it needs to be, to be whole and full. But really it is the ‘othering’, the capacity for the other. And the deeper one develops and practices that and nurtures that innate ability, the more “spiritual”, quote unquote, we become.
And sometimes that has a very specific thing like Christian or Buddhist or or whatever. But that’s almost beside the point because really in the end, love transcends all those kind of divisions in a way that’s kind of undeniable when it’s happening, no matter what your theology, and no matter what your political stripes, whatever. It’s just, you know when it’s happening.
Rachel Cram – Can you give an example of a time when you’ve experienced that?
Steve Bell – That kind of mutual othering thing?
Rachel Cram – Yeah.
Steve Bell – Yeah, it was actually – You mentioned my symphony work. I’ve done several concerts. Quite a few actually over the last several years, with symphonies. And my piano player, Mike Jansen, who’s a brilliant piano player, did all the scores. It’s majestic. It’s gorgeous. He really knows how to work an orchestra. And he’s quite a marvelous soloist.
And I remember saying to him, you know, make sure you take at least one song in the concert, you know, take a long extended solo and just really shine. So he picked one of the songs and he wrote in about a three to four minute sort of solo at the end. But he’s got lots of space to kind of go.
The first night that we do this, the concert hall was on fire. The sound was great. Everybody’s into it. The orchestra is killing it. It was one of those great great nights. And it came to the song and he started to take on this solo. And I’m looking at him and I’m just realizing within about two or three bars that this is a special night. That he’s got a unique freedom tonight. And what’s coming down the pike is just fantastic. And he’s giving this really complex rhythmical soloing, it’s just brilliant. It was unbelievable.
And so I dial into him and I think with my guitar playing. I’m listening really carefully to everything he is doing and trying to just do things with my guitar that’ll give him more energy. That kind of push him further, push him further, push him further, without getting in the way. And he locked eyes with me as he’s playing and I locked eyes with him and we’re just – we’re just staring at each other as his fingers are flying. And I’m not looking at my guitar and he’s not looking at his piano, and I’m just dialing in as closely as I can.
And this really complex, rhythmical, conversation started happening with the two of us. And all of a sudden I realized, that what I was doing to him, he was doing to me. He was fascinated with what I was doing. And he was trying to play things that pushed me further. And I was trying to play things that pushed him further. And nobody was leading. We were ‘mutually othering’.
The second that I realized what was going on – you can air this or not, because it’s a little weird – but, it’s like everything stopped in time and space. He froze, I froze. There’s no sound. It was just an absolute freezing of time and space. And then I heard this voice that said, “Pay attention. This is who I am.”
That was years ago. I’ve almost still not recovered from it. It was this powerful moment of revelation, where, I mean to use very inclusive language, where I think the Divine One told me who he/she is, through an experience that we had together, you know, kind of condescended to our experience of this ‘mutual othering’ and saying, “Yeah, you get it. This is who I am. And it is out of this ‘who I am’ that you can create in the first place”. And that’s where I started really understanding everything that we’ve been talking about.
Rachel Cram – As I listen to you describe that, I think what you’re describing is what everybody so desperately wants. It’s intimacy. And, we can go through the whole of our life and never find that. Love is the absolute requirement for that to be a safe thing that can occur. And you’re describing it between two musicians…
Steve Bell – Right.
Rachel Cram -…who got an incredible gift of experiencing that. So, I just, I listened to that and think, “What is it that makes that kind of intimacy possible and accessible?” Because, those are really moments, and they’re often really just moments, that make life rich and meaningful.
Steve Bell – Absolutely. And here’s the thing. That a pretty dramatic experience that I had. You know, in those big moments, when they happen they happen. Yay. Right. Who doesn’t want, who doesn’t want great experience of connection and intimacy? Of course we all do. And I would wish that on absolutely everybody. But I tell you what is done for me is, I’m starting to realize I just haven’t learned how to pay attention. Right.
And the more I attend to what’s actually happening and pay attention, and to know who I’m talking to. Who I’m eating with. Who I’m sitting beside in the cafeteria – at a bus stop. A bird that happens to fly by and as little flash of light that just kind of draws your eye. These are all the – it’s all the same thing you know. And I think the great saints, the great mystics, are really the people that don’t have the big experiences. They’ve learned to see them in almost every breath. Right.
Rachel Cram – Seeing those moments takes practice. So, just before we end Steve, how do we recognize those moments? Explain that.
Steve Bell – So, let me give you another example with my parents. I was with my mom. She’s aging and several years ago she wound up back in the hospital. Her whole life has been one of sort of in and out. And lots of her life has been wonderful. I’m not saying my mom has only suffered. She’s had many years of almost being free of it and then bang, it hits her again. And in her later years she had had a good decade of doing quite well and I thought, “I don’t think my mom has to go through this again.” and then, all of a sudden, bam! It hit her and she is back in the hospital. And it was long and it was brutal.
And I remember going in one night to visit her in the hospital and there’s nobody else visiting. It’s kind of awkward cause she, she’s not really living. She has nothing to talk about. She has no capacity to really be interested in almost anything. Engage with anything. And so I’m with my mom, just kind of being quiet. I’m feeling very awkward because I don’t know what to say to her.
I kind of look away and try to think. And every time I look back at my mom, she’d just be waiting for me look at her. And then, she’d just smile and we just kind of look at each other in the eyes. And I still couldn’t think of anything to say. And so I’d feel awkward and look away. And I’d look back at her and she’d all of a sudden she’d brighten up. Every time I looked at her she just kind of brighten up a little bit.
Then finally feeling my awkwardness, she reached out her hand to me and I took my mom’s hand. She’s got this very translucent skin and these huge blue veins that run off the top of her hands. And as a kid, I used to play with the veins. I used to take her hand and push the veins around, you know, because it was just fun. And, all of a sudden, I take her hand and I see those veins and suddenly I’m three years old.
I started to push them around and now because she is so much older and her skin is more translucent, it’s even better. And, I’m starting to giggle as I’m having this memory of this. And she’s starting to giggle because she’s remembering that this was the thing that we used to do – that I used to sort of sit there and play with her hands and push her veins around – and we’d laugh.
So this is happening. There’s this nice little joyful moment. And then, we ended up with me just putting my hand over top of hers. And I clasped my hand with hers and we just looked at each other. And I stopped looking away. We didn’t need to talk.
Rachel Cram – And then what did you feel?
Steve Bell – And then I felt, this is the words that came. And these are really from Simone Weil, a French philosopher, who uses this particular word. The word that came to me was, “there is gift in everything. Attend. Attend. Attend.
She really talked about the gift of attention – really transforms all experience. Taking these experiences that would rather not have, and fight them, as if they’re the enemy, saying no, no. There’s gift here. If there’s an essential goodness, there’s gift. So attend, attend, attend and it’ll pop up. It’s there.
Steve Bell’s Pilgrim Year series presents us with a shared tradition of remembrances, feasts, fasts and festivals that assure hope and meaning, and that ground us during seasons of upheaval and uncertainty. Each reflection within the series takes us on a wonderful journey through the Christian calendar accompanied by one of Steve’s songs on that theme, or a video.