Tips  on spiritual growth, emotional health, and relational healing.


What Jay-Z Taught Me About Responding to Pain

Dec 5, 2017

“It’s impossible to go through life unscathed.”
-Christopher Paolini

You have pain in your life. I do too. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.

We have lots of options about what you do with that pain.

We can…

  • deny it exists and ignore it…
  • run from it and avoid any act which brings us closer to it…
  • transfer that pain to others, taking our pain out on them…
  • or face the pain and deal with the cause(s) behind it.

The decision you make about your pain will chart the course of your future.

That’s what I learned from Jay-Z recently.


A Conversation with Jay-Z Which Captivated My Attention

Jay-Z recently sat down with Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times. As black men of different generations, this conversation was bound to be fascinating.

But what I watched over 36 minutes went far beyond fascinating.

From the first question, I watched a reflective, insightful man in his early 40s wrestling with big questions and soul stuff.

Sure, there were some political discussions and some race discussions. I found those fascinating too, while others might not agree. I have my own personal convictions in those areas like many of you, but personally, I love hearing from people who are reasonable while holding different convictions from me. The political and race discussions are not the subject of today’s post, but I’ll get there in a future post.

What I found worth reflecting on further was Jay-Z’s comments about pain. This post isn’t a statement on Jay-Z’s worthiness as a role model, but an exploration of the wisdom he’s gained from processing through his life experience and pain.

You can watch the edited and condensed conversation here. But if you don’t have 36 minutes and don’t want to read the transcript, I’d like to walk you through six highlights, which instruct us about dealing with our pain.


6 Lessons from Jay-Z about Pain

1. You cannot heal what is hidden.

Jay-Z and Baquet spoke about the theme of racism for a few minutes in the interview. Speaking about the racial tensions which have emerged over the last year, Jay-Z took a different take on the question of whether he feels the conversation being fueled by certain leaders is a good thing.

JAY-Z: “But it’s still happening in a good way, because you can’t have a solution until you start dealing with the problem: What you reveal, you heal…Right? If I have like a tumor, and I don’t know it, it doesn’t mean it goes away. I have to diagnose it first. No matter how it happens. If I get hit with a football, and, like, Oh, I feel something there, and then I go to the doctor — it still happened.”

While Jay-Z isn’t aligned with certain leadership figures, he embraced the positive outcome – the revealing of a problem which needs to be healed.

“What you reveal, you heal” is a powerful statement.

Jay-Z’s comment reminds me of a line from AA (“you’re only as sick as your secrets”) and the words of Andy Stanley (“the consequences of concealment are far greater than the consequences of confession.”)

If you have hidden pain in your life, it won’t be healed until it emerges (or you bring it) into the light.

2. There’s a context to everyone’s pain and actions.

Baquet noted the maturity and perspective many of Jay-Z’s comments reflected. He inquired if Jay-Z had been through therapy. After Jay-Z confirmed he had been through multiple years of therapy, Baquet asked him to reflect on that process.

JAY-Z: “I grew so much from the experience. But I think the most important thing I got is that everything is connected. Every emotion is connected and it comes from somewhere. And just being aware of it. Being aware of it in everyday life puts you at such a … you’re at such an advantage. You know, you realize that if someone’s racist toward you, it ain’t about you. It’s about their upbringing and what happened to them, and how that led them to this point. You know, most bullies bully. It just happens. Oh, you got bullied as a kid so you trying to bully me. I understand.”

Everybody has a story and this story impacts how they interpret the world. Maintaining emotional perspective and empathy are incredibly difficult acts, but when we can acknowledge the kind of context Jay-Z describes, it helps us to offer grace and mercy to those around us. It helps us to offer grace and mercy to ourselves.


3. We don’t want other people to see our pain.

Just after his comments about his therapy experience and bullies, Jay-Z continued.

JAY-Z: “I was just saying there was a lot of fights in our neighborhood that started with “What you looking at? Why you looking at me? You looking at me?” And then you realize: “Oh, you think I see you. You’re in this space where you’re hurting, and you think I see you, so you don’t want me to look at you. And you don’t want me to see you.”…You don’t want me to see your pain… So you put on this shell of this tough person that’s really willing to fight me and possibly kill me ’cause I looked at you. You know what I’m saying, like, so … Knowing that and understanding that changes life completely.”

I’ve been part of those conversations “what are you looking at?” or “You looking at me?”, scared of what would happen to me if someone realized I was paying more attention to them than they wanted.

Jay-Z’s musing on the motivation behind this comment (insecurity and fear) was something which had never crossed my mind. How many of us have used different words to describe the same fear – the fear of being found out?

Many of us put on a shell and fight others, so we don’t have to face our pain or let others discover evidence of it. Social media only makes this temptation stronger and this step easier.


4. You can’t compartmentalize an emotional shutdown.

This section of the interview was obviously my favorite. Continuing his comments about “are you looking at me?”, Jay-Z acknowledged the cost of putting on a shell and running from the pain.

JAY-Z: You have to survive. So you go into survival mode, and when you go into survival mode what happen? You shut down all emotions. So even with women, you gonna shut down emotionally, so you can’t connect.

BAQUET: You can’t connect because of the way you feel about yourself, you mean?

JAY-Z: Yes. In my case, like it’s, it’s deep. And then all the things happen from there: infidelity…”

This section was brief but it may have been the most powerful.

We cannot selectively numb our emotions.

If we numb pain, we also numb joy.

If we numb grief, we also numb happiness.

When we cut off our connection to bad memories, we make it hard to connect with the good ones too.

Jay-Z admitted it was this kind of emotional gymnastics which made intimacy a challenge for him with his wife, Beyonce. He cited his infidelity in his marriage as a negative side-effect of his decision to shut down emotionally. This comment became the headline of the interview (“Jay-Z Admits Infidelity) as many suspected this from Beyonce’s Lemonade album contents. While this is the best line for the tabloids, I think this section holds an even more profound lesson.

What we do with our pain doesn’t just affect us. And it doesn’t just affect one area of our lives. It affects everyone we know and everywhere we go.

5. The myth about strong, unemotional men is a lie.

Jay-Z went into the lyrics of a song he wrote to explore what this shutdown looked like in his life.

JAY-Z: “And the idea of the hook — “never seen it comin’ down my eyes, but I gotta make the song cry.” It tells you right there what I was, I was hiding.

The strongest thing a man can do is cry. To expose your feelings, to be vulnerable in front of the world. That’s real strength. You know, you feel like you gotta be this guarded person. That’s not real. It’s fake.”

I know that men of a certain age were raised with a “don’t let them see you sweat” mindset. Many of us were taught “fake it until you make it.” And some of us had parents who told us “real boys/girls don’t cry.”

Many of us avoid this kind of emotion and the vulnerability it involves at all costs. We think we’re avoiding weakness, when as Jay-Z notes, we’re avoiding real strength.

Researcher Brené Brown has described how many men believe the women around them want them to die on their high horse, rather than being vulnerable in front of them. This kind of invulnerability not only prevents us from being known; it prevents us from being loved. 

It takes real strength to own our emotions and deal with our pain. To do so, we have to face our fears.


6. The most tempting response is running from our pain or the pain we caused others.

The version of the interview which the NY Times posted ends with the following exchange.

Jay-Z: “…the best place is right in the middle of the pain.

BAQUET: Right.

JAY-Z: And that’s where we (Beyonce and Jay-Z) were sitting. And it was uncomfortable. And we had a lot of conversations. You know. [I was] really proud of the music she made, and she was really proud of the art I released. And, you know, at the end of the day we really have a healthy respect for one another’s craft. I think she’s amazing.

You know, most people walk away, and like divorce rate is like 50 percent or something ’cause most people can’t see themselves. The hardest thing is seeing pain on someone’s face that you caused, and then have to deal with yourself.


JAY-Z: So, you know, most people don’t want to do that. You don’t want to look inside yourself.


JAY-Z: And so you walk away.”

What you do with your pain has a massive impact on your future.

Running from it can dissolve a marriage, cut short a career, or end a great friendship. As Jay-Z notes, sometimes the hardest pain to face is the pain we’ve caused someone else.

Owning what you’ve done and how it’s made someone else feel demands great emotional maturity and steadfastness.

When we don’t walk away, it opens the door for our worst moments and deepest pains to transform us into completely different people.


What Have You Learned About Pain?

If reading these limited comments from Jay-Z has captured your attention, check out the interview here.

As you reflect on the words of Jay-Z and your own experience in this year and the many others you’ve experienced, I’d love to hear from you.

As you reflect on the words of Jay-Z and your own experience in this year and the many others you’ve experienced, I’d love to hear from you.

What have you learned about pain?

How has what you learned impacted your responses to your pain?

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