Archive for August 7, 2021

Last week, while I was on vacation, I heard a song that I haven’t heard in years. When I was in college, (the first time, just out of high school) my roommate Bill was a huge Neil Young Fan, and so the one Hey, Hey, My, My was on pretty heavy rotation around our apartment, so heavy that I haven’t listened to it in a long time. There was no hatred of the song (I reserve that for Disco), no animosity, My tastes went morello prog and metal, and then I became a Christian and for a time I only listened to Christian music. I just went in a different direction. The song is actually really good, you can hear it here if you want.

Driving around the town of Rehoboth Beach, it almost felt like Bill took over the reigns on Classic Rewind on Sirius XM because I heard to song at least three times. It was really nostalgic, but there are two lines in the song that I find troubling.

“It’s better to burn out than it is to rust” and “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

Neil Young, Hey Hey My My

I have to be honest, when I was younger, these two lines were probably why I liked the song and why it resonated with me, but I’m older now and things have changed. These lines and the attitudes they represent are especially pertinent to artists and creatives. Here’s why I wrestle with them.

“It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.”

The line might be a paraphrase of evangelist, George Whitefield who said “It’s better to wear out than it is to rust out.” Whitefield may have been rebutting Cicero who said, “It’s better to rust out than wear out.” I’m going to have to go with Whitefield on this one. The last thing I would want to do with this one life I have been given is to waste it rusting by the side of the road. Still is burning out, really the best use of this one life? Let’s move to the second quote.

“It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

Neil Young wrote it. Def Leppard echoed it. I resonated with it for years, yet now I struggle. I think we all desire immortality. The good news is, in Christ that can be guaranteed. Fading away speaks to more than just the desire for eternal life though. It speaks to legacy—being remembered here long after we’re gone. As artists, we all want to hang a piece in the Louvre. Songwriters want to write the song that lasts forever. Writer’s want to create classics of literature. Actors and filmmakers want Oscars. We want to create work that stands the test of time, and there’s nothing ostensibly wrong with that, but it can become something more. It can move into the realm of the idolatrous and it can actually damage your legacy, and that leads back to burning out. The quest for creative immortality is much different than the free gift of eternal life, which can only be given and never earned.

We need to be careful here. There is nothing wrong with creating your very best work. That is good and admirable, but the desire to be honored by men is really fleeting. Artists who succeed at making lasting work, don’t do it by trying to please the masses. They do it by creating the work that is on their hearts to create and releasing it to the world. Whether or not it resonates with the audience is up to the audience. Success and accolades can become obsession, and obsession usually leads nowhere good. In my case, it nearly pushed everything out of my life that was good and right and true. I ended up being the worst of all, burned out and with very little to show for it, except for a lot of relational carnage.

Here’s the thing. None of us should want to rust. There is too much life to be lived and too much good to be done to sit on our hands and rest on our laurels. Likewise, all of us should try to live a memorable life, but like another song I once heard, a band that faded into oblivion called Wild Dove, “Don’t carve your name in stone, leave it there on someone’s heart.” That sort of illustrates the point. That album never went platinum, or even gold, I’m not even sure it ever went to be pressed on vinyl, but that line struck a nerve and here we are probably four decades later, it is still resonating at least with me. Philosophically and Spiritually, that’s where I want to live. See there’s more than one way to not fade away. The best way I can think of is to make a mark on people’s lives, after all, because of Christ, people (and things of the One true God) are the only thing that really last forever. Of course, the best mark we can leave is the One that brings people to immortality. I’m convinced we need a healthier picture of immortality. One day all of our creations will pass through fire, and what will truly matter is what that work gained for the Kingdom.

Burning out is problematic. It’s better than rusting, but it can leave carnage behind and the mark it leads is very rarely a good one. I’ve sinned in the area too many times to count and I pray I can be forgiven—not by God, who is truly amazing in His grace. No I want to be forgiven by the ones I leave behind. Working as if it all depends on me has left me absent when I should have been there and distracted when I was there. The last thing I would want is for my ineptness to leave a mark that would separate someone from the source of true immortality.

Here’s the best idea. Don’t burn out, or fade away or rust. Instead faithfully do your best work and keep in mind that life is more important than work. Strive to leave something behind that will help people to remember you, and you may just be creating an idol. Instead strive to touch hearts and minds and leave God’s mark on hearts.