There’s a quote from Gandhi I love: “To a people famishing and idle, the only acceptable form in which God can dare appear is work and promise of food as wages.” Read literally, it is humane and compassionate and deeply true. But I also read it as a general principle, which leads me to this restatement:
To a people starving for meaning, the only acceptable form in which God can dare appear is art.
I’m writing this in a hotel room in St. Louis, where I will be speaking at a conference this week. I should be making serious efforts to go to sleep on Central Time, but instead, I am sitting here feeling like an egg about to hatch. It is not restful, but it is exciting, and given that option, I usually choose door number two. (“I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” my grandfather used to say. Please bless me that I don’t get to test the truth of that for a long, healthy time.)
I’m excited about my speech, because I’m going to lay out my vision of cultural transformation in a new way, based on the writing I’ve been doing for my new book.
But what I’m most excited about this very second are the gathering signs of emergence. Pick your metaphor: hatching eggs, seeds sprouting, sun rising. The signs are gathering. I’ll just mention one right now: the growing awareness of music’s power to heal, connect, and expand awareness.
Earlier this week, someone directed me to this YouTube clip from the about-to-premiere film, Alive Inside. The clip shows Henry Drayer, a man whose usual state is nearly somnolent: day after day, he sits in his nursing-home wheelchair, staring and unresponsive. Everything changes when he is given an iPod filled with music he loves, largely Cab Calloway and his cohort. The music awakens him, he sings, he responds to questions. Before our eyes, he transforms from an avatar of resignation into a fully dimensional human being, crackling with life.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks, who features prominently in the film, describes the man as “restored to himself. He has remembered who he is, and he has reacquired his identity for a while through the power of music.” The man is asked what music does to him. “It gives me a feeling of love,” he says. “Right now, the world needs to come into music, singing. You’ve got beautiful music here…. I feel a band of love and dreams. The Lord came to me and made me holy. I’m a holy man, so He gave me these sounds.” The film showcases the Music and Memory project.
Another friend told me to watch the feature film, The Music Never Stopped, which is based on a Sacks story, “The Last Hippie.” I streamed it on Netflix. It is about a young man, a musician, who has lost the capacity to make new memories due to a brain tumor; and who reawakens and reconnects with other human beings—including his estranged father—through the mostly sixties-psychedelic music he adores.
When I say we are starving for meaning, here is what I intend: these days, we are drowning in data and analysis. The rising tide of information and misinformation threatens to swamp us. But it doesn’t add up to meaning, the kind that rings a bell in your heart and mind, resonating with a truth you perceive in multiple ways, one you are aching to hear spoken. Pile up data forever, it doesn’t matter: as an old friend of mine used to say, “you can never have enough of what you don’t really need.” But hear just a few words of your deepest truth, and the world comes into focus.
It can be hard to get to that truth now with words alone, because there is so much background noise. But music cuts right through the noise. I’m sure that even as I write, scientists are “explaining” why this is. I am not saying the scientists’ version is inferior or untrue; it is one true story that can and should be told. But it can never encompass the entire truth: does naming brain chemicals and electrical charges and memory mechanisms convey all there is to say about a parent’s love for a child? Or the thing that makes you know that someone you have just met will be important in your life? We are animals whose physical mechanisms conspire with unparalleled genius to generate emotional states. But we are also much, much more.
The people depicted in these films have hitched a ride to their true selves through music. Their experience expresses it better than anything else could: by braiding beauty and meaning, by simultaneously activating all four realms of experience—physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual—music permits us a glimpse of wholeness, and when we give that glimpse its true weight, it can be sustaining.
This has always been true. It is not new. What is new is the emergence of this deep and ancient truth into the realms of science, disrupting the old paradigm’s certainties about so many things. What is healing? How are the body and spirit connected? What happens when beauty and meaning are understood as medicine, when we remember that reaching the whole, fully dimensional, fully sensual person carries a power that can never be equaled by the mechanistic, dry-as-dust interventions of the old paradigm?
The emergent truth is dawning, I have no doubt. I only hope we have eyes to see and ears to hear, and hearts to understand.
Thinking about this, I’d say we need a couple of archetypal tracks from the hippie quadrant of the sixties, “For What It’s Worth,” by Buffalo Springfield, and “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead. But the clip I’ll embed is another kind of sixties flashback altogether, Richie Furay singing “Kind Woman.” I can’t even unpack the aesthetics, erotics, and politics of this one. Just paddle around in it for a few minutes.
I woke up this morning singing, after too many weeks of silence. Perhaps I “hitched a ride to my true self (sic) through music.”
Thank you for your beautiful thoughts and words.
I have been trying to make sense of the popularity of the ‘Hunger Games’ books and movie. And I ended up with the thought that young adults are starving for meaning. Physical hunger is the dominant sensory experience, and the only real sensuality is found in the various descriptions of food and the experience of consuming it when starving. Of course, the most talked about health problem experienced by young adults in the United States is obesity. But the paradoxical result is the prevalence of dieting or in more extreme cases, ana and mia.
Whatever my thoughts, there is a hunger bordering on starvation. And young adults aren’t just sitting around. There are estimates that there are 4 million indie bands in the US.
So I think something is happening.
I just read my comment again and if it comes across as some scribbling by someone thinking of writing a review — that’s what it is.
But, in fact, last night I was listening the EP from my barista’s indie band. They are pretty good. http://whoisyoungjesus.com/
Hi Arlene –
Thanks for this post…I watched the clip of Henry. It was so moving and reminded me of when my mother was in the hospital in a drug induced coma. She was 80, forgetful and took too much of one of her meds. The doctors said she would wake up but days passed and there was no sign of life. Then one day my husband and I, along with other family, went to the hospital and my husband brought his guitar along. We gathered around her bed and he began to play Bach. As he watched her, he wondered if she was suffering. He then began to play a song with a melody like a Russian folk song (my mother was of Russian descent) and it starts out “when you hear Russian songs, do you suffer?” He played and sang on for a few more minutes and all of sudden her eyes flew open, she looked at us with amazement and joy and tears and asked us “how did you find me?”. She began to move her arms to the music and clap. That was the end of her coma!