Today’s inspiration started with music. One of the first inspirations for me, something fifty years ago, was the Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand. I remember taping and playing that song over and over again, not so much to listen to it, but to feel it. Eventually, I overplayed it, and the feeling passed. It was followed by the Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Woman, The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun, and dozens of others, Springsteen’s Born to Be Wild, Knopfler’s Sultans of Swing, and much later on, Keith Urban’s You’ll Think of Me. More recently, I’ve greatly overplayed the Decembrists’ Down by the River, Adele’s Someone Like You, especially the YouTube version by Charlie Puth and Emily Luther, and this month, Mumford and Sons’ I Will Wait. I’ll admit that some of this repetition is due to the corporate radio’s tendency to promote anything that looks like a winner, but I think something else is going on. I’m feeding an innermost part of my brain, the same way a drug addict does, the same way a runner pushes past the wall to get that stream of endorphins, and the same way lovers love. The songs help me to feel something I like, even if sometimes that feeling is vicarious pain. Each song stimulated a different feeling, but they were all good in their way.
I believe three physical laws are operative here. The first is our need to feel something, sometimes anything. The second is the vicarious law of literature, video, and music. We are attracted to the sharing of other’s stories, their triumphs, and even their pain, as long as we don’t have to feel the real pain ourselves. I want to watch Abraham Lincoln and feel some of his ups and downs; I do not want to be him. The third law is that of diminishing returns. It is a wonderful blessing both to our families and ourselves that the repetitive playing of Mumford and Sons eventually bores us and we must wait for another such masterpiece or not play the song for a year.
Ann and I are currently taking a wonderful course based on Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication, which I’ve recommended before. Mary Kay Reinemann, our inspiring teacher, tells us regularly to watch for feelings. They are messengers. Anger is a messenger shouting a need. Every feeling is a please (help me) or a thank you. Hatred is please help me; I am overcome by fear. It is shouted out through a Marshall double stack amplifier with the volume on max. It is written in giant, red, bloody letters. Kindness is a thank you. Communication is more complicated than that, but you get the idea. You can also see why we’re taking this course for the second time, just so we can practice with others. The point is that feeling, even unpleasant feeling, is life, and numbness is death. To feel nothing is to be nothing. It is true that we also think, but even thinking can be dominated by feelings, and I never listened to I Want to Hold Your Hand because it gave me a thoughtful, philosophical position in life.
The second law, the law of vicarious living, is also a gift in disguise. We all must work for a living, and that work takes up so much time and energy that we do not usually have the space to be Humphrey Bogart, Harry Potter, or Lady Mary Crawley finally married to her Matthew. We can choose to live such lives, to feel what they feel, and not actually have to say goodbye to Ilsa, be orphaned by another wizard, or feel the anguish of ruin, scandal, or loss. We may live many lives in one. Their reality, even if we don’t participate as deeply as Walter Mitty in his secret life where he pilots a submarine or saves a life with a pen is real enough. We feel a measure of what they feel. We become them to a degree, and that degree is just enough. That degree can be geometrically multiplied. We may be Lady Mary and Matthew, and Lord Grantham, and any number of maids, footmen, and butlers. We may even be scoundrels if we choose. To feel them is to live them, and it is a blessing.
The third law, that of diminishing returns, is also a blessing. When we choose to love and marry, we feel intensely and wonderfully, but also, we cannot feel that same intensity forever. This is providential because one’s spouse is bound to change, as are we all. A marriage based only on what a partner was like at 22 is a marriage in trouble. I believe the best marriage is one that assumes a trajectory. My wife is not the woman she was at 24; she is better, wiser, more alive, and I had a pretty good idea that was going to happen. The law of diminishing returns also forces us to grow, to change. Stasis is death. The law of diminishing returns forces the creation of a fifth symphony after we have tired of the other four. It forces the creation of What About Bill after we have tired of Groundhog Day, and a third season of Downton Abbey after the late night kiss in the snow that ended the last season.
The law that rules this world, including our own brains, is providential, blessed, and necessary because it nudges us to live. It is all good.