From Badlands to The Promised Land

I used to have a workout playlist that started with Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” and ended with his “The Promised Land.” Great tunes, driving rhythms, uplifting theme — what better way to start strong and finish strong?

A technical glitch zapped that playlist, along with the rest of the music on my iPod. Some life glitches zapped my workouts, and the Humpty Dumpty playlist is one of the things I have not yet put back together again.

But I’ve been thinking lately about the Badlands-to-Promised Land trajectory and how it so perfectly fits our culture, with its stories of true grit and triumph over adversity. It perfectly fits the trajectory I was trying to follow in my life: the better-stronger-higher-deeper ethos that not only pervades popular culture, but also motivates some of the people I most admire.

It’s a great story line for getting me off my tuchus to exercise. But as a life story, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Every day in every way, things don’t necessarily get better and better. Sometimes they get worse. Sometimes they seem miraculously stable and balanced; other times, the stability is less of a groove and more of a rut.

The narrative of continuous improvement is, in the words of “The Promised Land,” one of “the dreams that tear you apart,” “the lies that leave you nothing but lost and broken-hearted.” Even in my workouts, I had a habit of lying to myself: whatever goal I set, my real goal was to run a little farther, a little faster. So even when I met my stated goal, I still felt I should have done better.

Fortunately for my playlist, The Boss is not selling these lies. When you really listen to the songs, “Badlands” and “The Promised Land” are not opposites. They both tell the same story — a story of desperation and determination, a trajectory that begins with a leap of faith and ends in a place yet to be found.

“The Promised Land” prophesies not milk and honey but “a dark cloud rising from the desert floor … a twister to blow everything down that ain’t got the faith to stand its ground.”

“Badlands,” meanwhile, reminds us that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”:

I believe in the love that you gave me
I believe in the faith that can save me
I believe in the hope and I pray that someday it may raise me
Above these badlands
You gotta live it every day
Let the broken hearts stand as the price you’ve got to pay
Keep pushing ’til it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good 


What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

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