Over 150 years ago, President James Garfield uttered this famous phrase. The first section is based on John 8:32 in the Bible, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount delivered almost 2,000 years ago. Sometimes the oldies are the goodies.
I've found this phrase particularly profound lately. Our lives fill with people, experiences, tragedies, and circumstances. Some are joyous and fun and interesting. Others are painful, difficult, and incomprehensible. And every once in a while, the two converge. You take a new job that seems exciting and challenging only to find it stressful and unmanageable. You make a new friend with whom you laugh out loud and feel exhilarated around only to later be hurt by something said or left in their wake because they've moved on to a newer, more exciting friend. Or you have an experience because it seems fun, feels good, and pleases you at the moment, only to wake the next day with regret.
Part of growing older and maturing requires us to stare reality in the face, take a bite, and stomach the bile that tries to fill our mouths as we grope with the truth. Be it betrayal by a friend, desperation over a circumstance thrust on us by the economy, anger at a parent or child, a medical issue, or confronting demons from the past lying in wait. It's so much easier to gloss over the uncomfortable. To pretend we don't see that friend across the hall who is angry with us. To ignore the pain in some part of our body that just won't go away. To engage in small talk with someone whom we really need to dig deep with. To confront the economic or social circumstance that has altered our reality. To face that thing that never lets go.
Facing our truths is painful and difficult, but as the quote says: "It will set you free." We try to bury our pain and frustration and embarrassment. But it's akin to putting a lid on a pressure-cooker. It will only stay so long before it blows off and shatters on the floor. You can shelve your anger at a friend, parent, spouse, or neighbor. You can bury the pain of a childhood hurt, a friend's betrayal, a job lost, an opportunity wasted. You can refuse to confront whatever lies within you that keeps trying to bubble to the surface. But it's futile. Although facing your truth will make you miserable (or sad or embarrassed or angry or exhausted) at first, it will set you free.
How does this tie into writing, you ask? As authors, we must excise, rewrite, delete entire scenes and characters. It's a constant pruning after spending hours or weeks making a chapter or scene just right, only to learn that it needs to be chopped completely. Spending years on a novel only to cut chunks in a re-write feels like cutting off appendages. But it's necessary. To produce the best work you can, you must confront the truth of the inadequacies in your writing. You must realize that it isn't the place to vomit agenda or show how descriptive you can be. You must face your work with an eye focused solely on making it the best it can be. As we must do with life.