Once more, with feeling!
There is a tendency to think of art as a luxury. Food and drink are necessities, but art is something to indulge when your basic needs are covered. We sometimes think about it like the sprinkles on the icing on the cake. It has long been the case that whenever there are cuts in school budgets (and there always are), it is the arts that get the blade. The thinking is that you have to have math and science and know how to read and write because you need those things to survive in society. But if you lose beauty and music, it’s sad, but hey, something’s got to go and you don’t really need a song.
But I’m not sure that’s true.
This post is not a political debate about school curriculum. This is just one persons confession and observation about something I believe to be important.
I’m not a big cryer. It’s not a choice I made really…not consciously… or a tough guy thing. I just don’t cry that much. As an aside, I genuinely believe that the toughest people are the ones who embrace and develop their emotional self and cry all the time. Life is supposed to be emotional and tears are just one physical manifestation. When you tamp down and wall off that part of yourself that feels, you are not “tough” because your emotions weaponize themselves against you as they plot their unpredictable escape from your attempts to cage them. Or they can be weaponized against you by others seeking to manipulate. Being less emotional doesn’t make you tough. It makes you incomplete. Weaker. But that’s just an aside.
My point about crying is that part of why I don’t is because I taught myself that emotions were something to be feared. They seem like something that interferes with my ability to control who I am in the world, or who I want you to think I am.. I have a very calculated version of myself to present to you and emotional responses are a messy interference with my ability to do that. I am a “thinker” and being a “feeler” makes that harder. Or so I believed. Over the years, I have learned to put away the way I feel. I hide it. I ignore it. I hold it in and try to overpower it by force of will. And so I do not cry much in part because I have spent a life trying to control the way I feel so it does not control me.
At first, it was a defense mechanism. Then a strategy. Eventually a habit. By the time I realized the danger of what I had done and how much it robbed me of joy, empathy, sympathy and human connection, the walls I had placed around my emotions were too thick to go through, too tall to climb and created too complicated a labyrinth to find my way through to feel. Now I have to confront the irony that I have sacrificed part of who I was meant to be for only the illusion of increased control. But I am not more in control. I am simply less of a participant in the human experience.
I have long been puzzled by my propensity to cry during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. What’s that about? Am I just wildly patriotic? Am I moved by remembering those who sacrificed their lives in battle for this country? Do I simply love the beginning of a sporting event that much? Maybe to all of those. But then I noticed it’s not just that song. Music does something for me that I struggle mostly unsuccessfully to do without it. It plunges effortlessly into my psyche and reconnects me to my heart. It does not notice the walls I have put up or the maze I constructed over the years. It has a direct line of sight to the part of me that feels. And when it connects, those emotions I try to keep neatly tucked away spring forth like a puppy at the beach for the first time. They rush to the surface and sometimes bring tears. And, honestly, it’s kind of awesome.
I cannot explain why this is. I’m not sure if it’s the melody or the poetry or something else, but it is tangible and real and glorious. There have been many times while writing music in my head in the car that I had to pull over because I was overwhelmed by all the feeling and essentially weeping. I wasn’t sad, or happy. I was just….feeling.
There are times when visual arts have the same effect. And times when simply observing natural beauty reconnects me in the same way. But nothing does it for me quite like music. Over time, it has helped me welcome emotion back into my life. I have begun to undo the segregation of my own humanity. I no longer (mostly) fear my emotions or worry they will overwhelm my sense of reason. Instead, I work to get to know them again and invite them to make me more passionate, more joyful, more connected, more empathetic and so on. But much of this effort would not have come about were it not for music and art.
And perhaps, I am not unique. In western civilization we are mostly taught that emotion is the enemy of reason. Men have been taught for years to cripple their own emotional selves so that they can control their environment and recover from the terrible things we have asked men to do. We have generally accepted that emotion is for the weak and even decried women’s superior emotional health as hysteria and mental illness. And this has made us violent, disconnected, self-centered and dull to the joy of living a full life.
It has literally been a matter of life and death and our collective insistence on relegating emotion to an annoyance experienced by the soft, has led to countless lives diminished and lost.
So, what if….music?
What if it is art that reconnects us to our full selves? What if it is the antidote to our self-inflicted disintegration? Would we still view it as a luxury? Would it be any less life saving than water?
I’m going to end by saying this. If you are an artist and drawn to share your gifts with the world, you are not simply providing entertainment or distraction from that which is real. You are reconnecting people to that which is most real. You are a lifeline that allows us to approach completeness. The courage and vulnerability you exercise in your art is reaching down into our souls and rescuing our humanity.
You are vital and I love you.
And, I might be crying a little just thinking about it.