(Photo courtesy of Ben Courson and Hope Generation)
Behind the Scenes: A Look into the Real Life of An ‘Optimisfit’
An Interview With Ben Courson
By Sarah Komisky
Behind the scenes. What does it look like when there’s no glitz, no glamour? Most people never know. Ambiguity lies between what we see and what we don’t. In these candid moments, lie gold captured in its rawest form. But then there are the moments the world can see, what the public figure chooses to show. Journalists have the interesting perspective of seeing both sides of a person. Sometimes one’s public persona can be very different from their private life. When it comes to Ben Courson, I’ve been privileged to have moments on and off the mic. Being on both sides, this is what I can say, both are genuine.
Over the course of a year, I’ve witnessed the rise of an “Optimistfit.” New book. New tours. New opportunities. New Places. New popularity growing at a rapid rate with new “hope generators” to add to his 106k (in counting) followers on Instagram. On the heels of a major and global book release this March, there is much anticipation and intrigue surrounding the speaker, author, and radio/TV personality. Scroll his Instagram account and you’ll see comments from people who want to know his favorite food to who that person is in his photo and where he got that shirt he is wearing. Hey, this is a person who wanted to be the first to write a book on his iPhone as he told me, “Well I figured if it’s a rebellious book; I wanted to write it in a rebellious, non-conformist way.” Intriguing, right?
Last April I first met Ben over an interview. His breakout book Optimisfits, was still in the making. Everything was new. So was our teaming up. Little did I know I was meeting someone who was on the brink of a turning point and that I would come along for the journey, a journey that has been an unconventional adventure that I love being a part of. In many ways, the experience being quite unique. I’ve had a backstage pass, so to speak, into the author’s life where we connect between flights and new destinations. Conversations (like this interview) took place while driving from point C to D. I was the third out of four speaking events that day. Typical for Ben Courson. But as I’ve been invited in to work alongside him, I also became a friend who gets to observe the upward trajectory of his career in ways most people don’t.
I’ve seen the season of an exciting spring where we’ve talked about the new project launching, but I’ve also been in winter when I supported my friend who lost a loved one. I’ve seen him work out his life, adjust, and find his way juggling a busier schedule and new experiences he had not yet encountered. I guess we’ve both learned things along the way.
As spring comes around again and a major book release drops, the truth is, sometimes I forget he is the guy whose voice I hear on the radio. Or the guy who is signing books to massive lines of people. Or the person who is getting makeup touch-ups before an interview (yes, check out his Instagram). I guess that is because even with increased notoriety, I’ve always aimed to see and know the person, not the celebrity. Ben is Ben. And I am Sarah. It’s how we met and how we remain. Maybe that’s why we work so well together.
Through it all, my favorite moments have been off the record. The in-betweens of professional life. Normal conversations. Laughter. Yes, seasons changed but we have not. We still make collaborating work. And while press and celebrities usually are at odds, we defy them in friendship. Yep, “Optimisfits” for sure and authenticity is at the helm, which reflects the dialogue of this interview that has a very behind the scenes feel – I guess that’s because it’s who we really are.
Prepping for my conversation with Ben, I sat down and read the pages of his new book. I liken it to visiting an art gallery, taking in all the different pieces. Some Picassos. Some Kahlo. Some Warhol. Some Van Gough (literally – his story pops up in the book). I could exhale in this enjoyable read, get lost in discovery, fun, and creativity in one-line chapter sentences or vignettes in a bigger story of hope. As a writer, I appreciated the carefree spirit of it all – a nod to his rebel lit heroes of the past. I told Ben it was nothing like I ever read – in the best way possible way. Laughing he responded, “Oh good! That makes me happy.”
The author who finds inspiration in fantasy novels and poetry, creates for the sake of creating. Ben never writes anything he doesn’t care about. Writing always reflects hope. Metaphysical musings and using alliteration are more his jam. He’s not trying to be commercial and he is OK if you don’t agree with his opinions. After all, the book is unparalleled to anything in the faith community (which is why I think it’s so great).
Ben’s bigger concern is the delivery of the message. When asked about his biggest discovery in the process of writing this book, his answer was the editing process. The writer partnered with the legendary Terry Glaspey who sealed the deal to work with Ben when he mentioned he edited one of the books by one his favorite authors. The two were able to capture his stream of consciousness/jumpy-speaking-style reflective of “Gen Y/Gen Z.” A style that he says is not necessarily linear.
He notes, “I wanted to take it [Optimisfits] a lot deeper in ways that the crème de la crème, the cream of the crop, and the few and the proud could understand, but it wasn’t something that the common people could understand.”
The goal was to model in the feet of C.S. Lewis and, ultimately Jesus, saying, “If you want to write really deep, it might not reach as wide, but if you write in a way that could synthesize your depth into something that’s more broad and widespread, you’re closer to what Jesus did in his preaching.”
He continues, “He was very deep but the common people, the Bible says, heard him gladly. In fact, 90-some percent of his parables were nature-based, so he was speaking in the common tongue. Sure he had art (and would have those Kurt Cobain), a mosquito, an albino, a mulatto. And you’re like, ‘What is he even saying?’ and he’s a genius artist. And on the other hand, he would say things that were very simple like, building your house on the rock verses building your house on the sand.”
Optimisfits, is according to Ben, a self-proclaimed “chaotic tapestry of communicating.” If you’re looking for a scholarly piece or theological work, you’ve come to the wrong place although it is a book that is in no way lacking intellect, historicity, or Scripture. It’s just that it’s more rebel James Dean than it is sweet Ricky Nelson. It can make an A-type personality jittery when the rules of grammar and structure are broken in the name of artistry, but Ben’s more concerned with being himself and relating more than he is impressing. That’s the beauty of it. It’s a book with freedom at its core. A creative opus. An extended invitation to the reader to discover abundant life with God and squad.
“I wanted people to take their relationship with God to a level of enjoyment rather than endurance. The Bible never teaches that God endures us,” he shares. “You are a child of God, in the new covenant, knowing that you’re not an orphan, that you’re a son and daughter of the Most High. Zephaniah says that He rejoices over you with joy. So, I really want people to see that the meaning of life, and this is a big deal, is to enjoy the joy of being enjoyed by God.”
Additionally, Ben once again surprises readers by doing something rare–he dedicates a large portion of the book to the people and stories of those closest to him. Why? Because these friends are the people he credits to changing his life for the better, pulling him out of long-standing depression and isolation.
“I was surrounded with these people who were skateboarding and brilliant and artistic and sendy, and they didn’t care at all about anything. But they had a great purpose, yet they didn’t fear people,” Ben expresses. “I watched these people around me living such insane lives, like Sean getting stung by a jellyfish, knowing he could die, and he couldn’t stop laughing. And I’m like, OK, the world needs to know about this story because that’s the way to live.”
He adds, “They were living the lifestyle of hope that I thought didn’t exist. I thought I was one of the only people out there like really fighting for hope in the way that made sense to me. And then I ran into all these Optimisfits, and I was like, OK, they’re doing it too.”
Being real has been something Ben values, but it is not something that has not come without it being challenged with pain and broken trust. Logically, one might think being more closed off to the outside world is the answer, but Ben does the opposite. He is willing to open up and let others into his thoughts, past pain, and even his flaws that he had second thoughts publishing but published anyway.
He confessed, “Honestly, there’s something that really hit me Sarah. There’s certain people on social media who will never post a picture of themselves clearly because they only want to present a perfect image to the world. The only problem with that is, nobody’s going to know you. And there’s good to be said of mystery, but if you’re so mysterious that no one can even access you, they’re going to lose interest altogether. So for me, I’m at the place now where with posting, with stories, and with book writing, I want to keep that balance where there is enough mystery that you don’t quite know everything I’m thinking or who I am, but there’s not so much mystery that it’s not relatable. And it’s been said that people are impressed by your strengths, but they connect with your weakness and that’s why I thought vulnerability was really important.”
The author who has gone through a lot in in his young life including heartbreak, loss, bullying, and a 10-year span of depression, has chosen to continue to preach hope even in the midst of current personal pain. In fact, this very interview was done just days after his brother passed into eternity, by Ben’s choice, to continue to spread the message of hope that his brother also championed. Nothing less than heroic in my opinion.
When asked how he’s been able to reconcile processing the pain he has gone through in life and letting it go through the vehicle of hope, he quotes Elsa from Frozen, “Let it go.” He says, “That is a powerful message. Do you want to carry around baggage? Like wallet size? Backpack size? Wheelbarrow size? Sometimes it’s not the hurts that people do to us that kill us, it’s our constant probing into them that kills us in the end. Yes, acknowledge that pain happened but don’t let that pain dictate your fun having. It’s your future.”
Legalism was also another one of the very real struggles Ben was bravely unwilling to be silent about when it comes to this relevant issue in the church. When asked if there was a time he had to deconstruct who God was and get to the place of understanding Him as “the friend of God,” he said, “As one friend of mine Sarah, I’m a self-proclaimed recovering legalist.”
He shares, “I used to be very, very legalistic. I would cower before God like a slave, and Jesus said, ‘I don’t call you slaves, I call you friends.’ The truth of the matter is legalism and friendship with God like antimatter and matter, cancel each other out and are mutually exclusive. You can’t have both.”
Since Paul, and Jesus himself, took this issue seriously in the Bible, Ben also tries to passionately make a strong case against it saying, “Legalism kills friendship with God. Religion actually put Jesus on a cross. Religion can actually get us further away from God than get us closer to Him. I just think that’s super important to emphasize. Well all the things I like about religion, there aren’t any.”
In turn, I asked what he would say to anyone who is currently in that place struggling to receive the love of God, he sighed, and then emphatically replied, “I would let people know God’s love is the greatest force in the universe. May that force be with you. I wrote an entire chapter about the greatest failures in history, and I talk about all this because I want people to see, you fail, I fail, but God’s love never fails.”
Beginning his interview, Ben prefaced with these words: “you’re the real deal.” He left it up to me to be on the record or off the record. Now, these words seem to come back to me as I type, fitting in like a final puzzle piece. I felt the same about my teammate and friend that I am so grateful to know, partner with, and at Marked Ministry, root for. Going back to my initial thoughts on life behind the scenes, the cool thing about Ben is that it looks a lot like life when it’s not. Interconnected. Real. This is good as it gets when it comes to an interview and even better when it comes to a quality friend.
To find out more about Ben and to order your copy of “Optimisfits,” visit bencourson.com