Perhaps the Greeks had it right and the common strand running through all of our lives is tragedy- of one sort or another. Often, I wonder why in these modern times, it seems so hard to acknowledge our struggles and yes, our deepest, darkest personal tragedies. Why do our lives seem to be lived with the frustration of a fleeting self “not quite yet where or who I need to be?” Perhaps that is how it should be, and our sense of incompleteness drives us ever onward, providing an open-ended impetus to live life as it comes to us and to “keep on keeping on.”
In reading Peter Ames Carlin’s “Catch A Wave,” the story of Brian Wilson, I am touched by how it is, that after striving for and achieving so much in his life, a life he almost lost to drugs and despair, that he somehow finds his way back. It doesn’t always happen that way. Even among the Wilson brothers, both Dennis and Carl died young from the consequences of their addictions.
It may be hard to say why some don’t make it back, and that’s not my task here because perhaps there isn’t always a way to answer for that. For some, the story ends too soon, in the midst of tragedy, a life may end and there is no redemption that we know of. No way to find the story in one’s unique person, time and place, perhaps because life can be lived too caught up in a myth not truly ours, but living through us like some unknown god that we can not see- with a claim on us never fully understood.
But for those who do make it back, we can, if nothing else, at least appreciate the struggle- both the pain and the beauty of redemption.
I believe that one of the gifts that we humans have that can bring us back is that of finding ourselves within a particular story that is both uniquely ours and yet still shares some common theme of what it is to be human.
At the heart of that struggle are our ideas of ourselves, the very language we use to tell the story that is uniquely ours. Without a story, there is no comprehension, no chance of parsing through and separating out what makes us unique, and why we must respect what is uniquely ours and not fear it. It is our language that tells the story- giving us the words and ideas we need to make sense of it all.
That is why I would argue that the words we use, the ideas we have of ourselves and others that tell the story of who we are, how we got here and where we’re going, are what make us and move us to become more fully who we are. As a friend of mine brilliantly says, “there are two days worth celebrating- The day you were born and the day you understand why you were born.” There’s a power in language that we must acknowledge and respect if we are to live authentically.
And how we define ourselves, through the story of our lives, carries us from the past, holds us in our present understanding of both ourselves and the world around us, and allows or limits our potential for movement, from where we are now to some other place. That is our only hope of freedom, freedom from our past, from the gods that would have sway over us and our fate, and keep us from finding our unique path which ultimately brings into being, the true character we are trying to become.
So how we define ourselves is absolutely the most important thing we do. Words and ideas have everything to do with our ability to see ourselves in the world we live in. Words have power over us, like it or not. For instance, if we say we are depressed, without taking care to refine our language and to say what that really means, we short change ourselves and at the same time, we shrink our understanding of what we feel by failing to give it a full chorus of meaning.
Here is Peter Ames Carlin’s description of Brian Wilson’s lyric writing during the darkest time of his life:
“When Brian lay in his bed for days at a time, listening to the music being recorded beneath his feet and pondering the distance between who he’d been in the mid 1960’s and who he had come to be in the early 70’s, there could be no more accurate portrait than the lyrics of “A Day in the Life of a Tree.
‘One day I was full of my life, my sap was rich and I was strong…
But now my branches suffer, and my leaves don’t offer
poetry to men of song.’
“From that point, when the music swells and the voices rise into the interlocking harmonies that Brian had once created so effortlessly, the conclusion they reach about the plight of the tree- or any sensitive creature- is chilling:”
‘No life’s left to be found…
There’s nothing left for me.’
“But now, with so much music behind him, the fruits of his success all around (including the shimmering Rolls-Royce he drove to the beach), and the power to do anything he wanted with the rest of his life, Brian realized that he still felt as lost, alone and terrified as he ever had. Back at his piano a few hours later, the feelings become a series of floating augmented chords, a melody, and then, finally, words.”
‘I’m a cork on the ocean
Floating over the raging sea
I lost my way.’
“Til I die, as Brian came to call the song, was another of his small musical miracles, so removed from traditional pop structures that the chords seemed to drift from key to key as if they were just as unmoored as the narrator. The lyrics, written without the assistance of a collaborator are both straightforward and evocative as the physical analogies in each verse- the cork adrift on the ocean, the rock tumbling into the valley, the leaf losing its grip in a windstorm-conclude with a concise expression of the feelings the image represents: ‘I lost my way, it kills my soul, until I die.’ “
There’s no simplicity of diagnosis; no depression, but rather enriched language, seeing oneself in nature’s metaphors, placing oneself at the mercy of deep feeling, not seeking an escape from one’s circumstances, but through the ideas that language presents, a chance to be furthered along, saved by the possibilities that the metaphor presents. A cork may float, but may also reach some new place and so find itself further along in the story of its life.
Thank you Peter Gabriel for the theme: