“Better to Light a Candle Than to Curse the Darkness.”

18 quotes that changed actor/director Josh Radnor's outlook on life and love — and will change yours too

Image by Jolygon/ Getty Images

A few months ago my friend Rob Bell had me as a guest on his podcast (a.k.a. The Robcast). Rob and I often bandy about quotes we love when we get together, and he thought an episode where I brought in my favorite quotes would be really fun. And it was. You can listen to the episode (Quoting with Josh Radnor!) here, but if you’re more of a visual type, read on as I break down some of the quotes that have sustained me in dark hours and continue to renew my faith and optimism.

“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

I thought this a clever, if cheeky, way to start. But I appreciate Emerson’s point, that we mustn’t fall into an overreliance on knowledge we ourselves haven’t experienced the truth of. I’ve thoroughly metabolized the wisdom of these quotes and surely could surely put them into my own words. But I also want to give credit where credit is due. It’s thrilling to discover that something we recently thought or discovered and claimed as our own was articulated by someone else in another era or culture. We’re all standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.

“Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” —Chinese Proverb

“The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better” —Richard Rohr

These two go together in my mind, as they’re essentially saying the same thing. It’s a philosophy I really try to live by, being conscious of where I’m placing my attention, what I’m pointing towards and asking people to notice. It feels like so much of social media – Twitter, to be specific – has become about how the sky is falling and who’s to blame. Outrage is certainly an appropriate response to the moment in which we find ourselves. Yet outrage divorced from any kind of healing movement forward feels fruitless. Plenty of people are cursing the darkness. I think we could use some more candle lighting.

“Let me fall if I must fall. The one I am becoming will catch me.” —Baal Shem Tov

A friend sent me this one when I was going through a uniquely difficult time and it gave me such comfort. I often feel that there are multiple ‘me’s’ in operation at all times. There’s the ‘me’ who’s in the experience, in this case the pain. And then there’s this older, wiser me untouched by the pain. That part of me is infinite, eternal, immortal, and wise. It’s that part that will do the catching. 

“The first taste of the ego is sweet but its fruits are bitter. The first taste of God is bitter but its fruits are sweet.” —Bhagavad Gita

I’m endlessly inspired by Krishna’s words to Arjuna on the battlefield in The Bhagavad Gita (I couldn’t source this quote directly but the gist is certainly in there.) I think about this notion a lot, that there’s often an initial sting to doing something we know is right or good for us or others. Surrendering our will is painful but more often than not it seems eventually to be followed by some sweet relief. Whereas the process is entirely reversed when we yield to misplaced hungers and addictions. I once heard it phrased this way: “You have to experience pain. You can either experience the pain of discipline. Or the pain of regret.”

“Know, O Beloved, that man was not created in jest or at random, but marvelously made and for some great end.” —Sufi mystic Al-Ghazali

If I had to pick a quote on here that’s given me the greatest comfort, this would be the one. Cynicism and nihilism are so tempting; I get the appeal. I just think they’re lazy and ultimately a misreading of reality. So many things that happen in life seem chaotic or wrong only to be revealed, with the passage of time, to make some kind of sense. This quote reminds me of something essential: We’re here for a reason and it’s a good one. 

“You are precisely as big as what you love and precisely as small as what you allow to annoy you.” —Robert Anton Wilson

I love this idea that we are defined by the size of our love. Annoyance and petty grievance tends to shrink us while love expands us. 

“Sometimes God calms the storm. Sometimes God calms the sailor.”

No attribution for this one but I couldn’t love it more. And I’ve surely felt the truth of it.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”     —Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich was a medieval Christian mystic who uttered these famous words after emerging from a prayer-induced, trance-like state. This quote has helped me banish the angry, punishing god from my psyche, a lovely companion to Richard Rohr’s terrific line: “The people who know God well—mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator.”

“There is only one caste, the caste of humanity. There is only one religion, the religion of love. There is only one commandment, the commandment of truthfulness. There is only one law, the law of cause and effect. There is only one God, the omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient Lord. There is only one language, the language of the heart or the language of silence.” —Swami Sivananda

I love Swami Sivananda and here he articulates something I’ve long felt: Perennial spiritual truths are simple. They cut through dogma and tribalism and quiet the monkey mind.

“Be humble because you are made of mud. Be noble because you are made of the stars” —Serbian Proverb

A terrific example of spiritual paradox. Not dissimilar to the Talmudic maxim about carrying knowledge in two pockets, that the world was made for me and me alone and I am nothing but ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

“The main thing to understand is that we are imprisoned in some kind of work of art.” —Terence McKenna

If you have a couple of hours to kill, I recommend a deep dive of Terence McKenna videos on YouTube. He was a ferociously intelligent man with a weirdly distinctive voice and a wholly unique and surprising way with words. Most well-known as a proponent of psychedelics, his musings cover a vast amount of ground and are almost always fascinating and destabilizing, in the best sense of the word.

“Jesus Christ was the only God. And so am I. And so are you.” —William Blake

The words of mystics often strike of heresy to untuned ears. The mystical path, as I understand it, is not about delegation but rather first-hand experience. Don’t follow Jesus, be Jesus. Again, this can sound heretical but consider the words of Jesus himself (John 14:12): “All these works I do you shall do, and greater works than these you shall do.” I never responded to religion which claimed sacred experiences were for other (mostly long-dead) people and our role was simply to listen and obey. The mystical path is the path of self-knowledge, the path of the rebel.

“We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.” —Carlos Castañeda

It struck me years ago that holding onto resentments, grievance, anger, annoyance, and pain was a lot of work. But so is staying on the right side of hope and health. I figure if I’m going to be doing all that work, I’d rather have some happiness be the result.

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” —Gustave Flaubert

The artists I most respect seem to lead fairly stable lives while being immensely brave and vulnerable in their work. It’s a sanity-preserving equation – saving the drama for the work – one that I think can help an artist not just make great art but have a long, sustainable career doing it.

“Like all weak men he laid an exaggerated stress on not changing one’s mind.” 
—W. Somorset Maugham

This is from Maugham’s famous novel Of Human Bondage, which I’m halfway through and I totally recommend. I find it so depressing that unwavering certainty has been elevated to a political virtue. We should change as facts change. An inability to admit error and change course is a sign of weakness not strength.

“Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”  
—David Foster Wallace

I love the notion that good art applies “CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical.” When times get dark – and there can be no doubt these are dark times – it’s heroic work to make art that reminds us of what about us is worth preserving and fighting for. And I think there’s a lot.

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.” —Isak Dinesen

I consider ‘story’ to be as vital to the human experience as water, food, and shelter. Story gives us context and meaning. In the absence of story there is only chaos. Sometimes in the midst of a really tough time I can comfort myself by seeing it as a story, resting in the knowledge that someday this will make sense. And the retelling of it might give someone hope in a dark time.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” —Howard Thurman

This quote reminds me there are many ways to contribute to the healing of this broken world. We can only give something away if we ourselves are in possession of it. I think it so important to isolate and then cultivate our gifts. Following my love of acting and writing has put me in a position to be of greater service than if I’d followed another path out of obligation or guilt. Service comes in many forms and I don’t think it has to be a slog. 

If you enjoyed this story from Josh, sign up for Josh’s Museletters here. 

And read Josh’s other Thrive Global pieces on music and heartbreakchoosing more than one career (he is half of the band Radnor & Lee), fame and the mindset shift that changed his life, spirituality, coping with the pain of loss, and why we need new metrics of success in our work.

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