I have a postcard on my office door with a Samuel Beckett quote I like on it. It reads, in my sanitized English translation, “When you are in it up to your neck, the only thing left to do is sing.”
Even on relatively bad days, I am very, very far from being in it up to my neck. Indeed, I am blessed in more ways than I can easily summarize. But I find the sentiment of Beckett’s phrase irresistible.
In the maelstrom of news and politics today, it’s worth remembering for all of us that there are healthy limits to the world of argument, criticism, and polemics that is the arena of political engagement. I spend a lot of energy in my life criticizing and polemically engaging with ideas. It’s an unavoidable part of the territory, given what I have dedicated myself to professionally.
It is also quite consonant with my personality, or at least some major part of it. French philosopher Michel de Montaigne believed that “agreement is an altogether tiresome constituent of conversation,” and my way of being in the world is fairly in agreement with that view.
But however positive this attribute can be in some settings, and however necessary it is to contend for what you believe in the political realm, this has a tendency to run amok if unchecked.
Too many of us have become insufficiently attentive to checking it. Our whole culture gives evidence of this. We allow the disputatious to run untamed, and it can get us into trouble. An unrestrained impulse to attack can end up irking some of the people we might be trying to help and persuade.
Now and again, we would do well to sing instead—especially when we are up to our necks in it. Singing has the magical ability to take us out of that dismal position and put us instead into a place of joy.
How does music do this? We don’t really know. Certainly it can evoke pleasant memories or other attachments to activities connected to the music. But whatever the source of the seemingly inexplicable energy that is produced by the vocal cords emitting melodic (or, depending on your singing skill, not so melodic) tones, making more of it is a good idea.
I sing mostly shamelessly now, and generally in key, even if I sometimes need to go falsetto. Nonetheless, I am told by some close to me that it is sometimes still annoying.
That is not my intention. I just sometimes cannot help, right in the middle of cooking something or putting on my shoes and coat or just walking down the stairs, breaking into “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” or “Sir Duke” or “Shotgun Willie.”
The other day, I had the 15th-century hymn “O Filii et Filiae” in my head. I started humming the melody then singing the lyrics of the hymn while at the dinner table.
My younger daughter, who is an enthusiastic singer during Mass, asked, as she commonly does when around her father who is constantly singing strange songs to her, “What is that song?”
I told her the name. Her reaction, wide-eyed: “I love it!”
The summer is here. What more reason do you need? Make a resolution today to sing. Or if you already sing, to sing more. The country needs more of us to remind everyone in the vicinity of the joy of being here and in relationship with one another.
Perhaps the most reliable way into the mystery of the sacred is through music.
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