I had a little free time last week waiting for the mixes to come back for Man in the Maroon. After six months of the meticulous layering and brushwork that is recording a studio album, I really needed to do something live and warty. This is that.
“What the World Needs Now” was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David in 1962. I don’t know when I first heard it. A long time ago.
I made this recording because, well first because I like the melody and the chords and the way they fall under your hands with simple voicings. But it’s the philosophy of the song that grabs me most.
What the world needs now is love, sweet actual clear-eyed humble love.
Love as in, forgiveness, tolerance, a little humility, maybe some gratitude, some brotherly or sisterly encouragement. I’m talking about the harder love. Bible verse love. The one about loving your enemy.
Maybe it’s better to substitute enemy for “they who do not think like you.”
Politics are really important to people right now. Fine. It’s an inevitable aspect of the organization of messy humans that we won’t all agree, that some people want more or fewer boundaries or taxes or genders or wild places. But the political appendage is a forked tongue. Division is basic to its nature. Add to the age old tension a current climate rife with bad faith actors and institutional agendas and you have, well you have a pretty tough moment to live in.
I have my own thoughts on how I think society should be arranged, but it’s not where I live. Life is too short, too mysterious to spend it hating my neighbor.
Ideas are what make me excited about being alive. Ideas in books, in history, in the collective repository of recorded human experience, and ideas in the daily realtime interactions I have with the people around me, some of whom think very differently from me. That I can count among my friends conservative churchgoers and transgendered singersongwriters is one of the great joys of my life. I love these people, not in spite of how they think, but because of how they think. Does that make sense?
The day Justice Ginsburg died, I watched that documentary on her life. One moment that glittered like wet grass was when the judge’s colleague expressed her complete incomprehension at Ginsburg’s friendship with fellow Justice, the conservative Antonin Scalia. I thought, and think, Why is that so hard to understand? They both enjoy opera. They respect one another. They are experts at the top of their game.
It’s a bigger essay than this one that could adequately unpack what led us to this, our zeitgeist of universal distrust. But I have a few small things I want to say about it, about the culture of contempt for the Other Side, on both sides.
Contempt is a particularly malevolent form of pride. If I have contempt for you, if I call you evil or stupid, then I am spared the annoying difficulty of actually considering what you have to say. But not only is it a cheap move, it corrodes the gears and anvils and hammers that have for centuries kept the delicate machinery of a free society in working order. Beneath the smug self-assured vitriol of righteous indignation, often expressed in the safe company of the like-minded, who can be counted on to support the statement with likes and RTs, is perhaps a fear throbbing like a tumor that the speaker might not be as right as he thinks he is.
It’s a situation familiar to relationship counselors that a marriage can recover from almost anything, save contempt. Where contempt grows, relationships die. It’s the most pernicious form of social corrosion, whether that’s between two people or two hundred million.
A corollary thought: I was fortunate to grow up in an environment that encouraged critical thinking. Which means, among other things, not to be too sure you know what think you know. I fall short of this all the time, but when I encounter someone who has an idea I think I disagree with, I try to listen to him or her. To actually listen. I try to hear what he has to say and I make an effort in good faith to understand. I think: there is a reason why this person thinks the way he does. He might actually have something valuable to tell me.
Even if I’m not swayed by the argument, my own perspective is likely strengthened, or even slightly modified, from the challenge. Either way I’m better for it, I’m richer for it, and hopefully I come away from the exchange with a deeper understanding of the world and the many different ways people choose to see it.
This kind of exchange has shaped the cultural and intellectual development of the West since at least Plato’s time. It’s rather elegantly described in a little philosophical nugget called the Hegelian dialectic. Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis.
Across the porch from me is a pumpkin, glowing bright orange in the afternoon sunlight. I now invite it to participate in my quick illustration of the Hegelian dialectic.
Thesis: “Carving pumpkins is a stupid waste of time.”
Anti-thesis: “Okay, but look at this pumpkin. My six year old daughter carved it with me last weekend. She ate a pumpkin seed and barfed on the porch and then laughed about it and it made me laugh too and while we were both laughing the neighbor dog came and licked it up which made us both laugh even harder. And now every time I see the pumpkin I think of that memory. It makes me smile.”
Synthesis: “Okay I get that. Perhaps I could say that carving pumpkins is a stupid waste of time unless undertaken with one’s daughter, in which case its prospect improves considerably.”
Not a scintillating illustration but then again it’s just a pumpkin. My point is, that kind of co-evolving exchange has gone into a wintry hibernation. So many people are very sure of what they know these days, and that’s the part I don’t understand.
It seems to me an intellectually flimsy way to face a world of actual, complicated problems. Unless I am willing to sharpen myself against the whetstone of a different perspective, my confidence is going to break upon contact with the first hard object it encounters. And my argument won’t fare much better. If I can’t bear to listen to a new idea because its very expression represents a threat to my personal safety, I’m destined to live inside a cage of my own making, interacting only with people who think the way I do. Brittleness follows.
What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It needs good faith. It needs people brave enough to listen to someone who thinks differently, without calling her a name. I’m not telling you what to do or how to feel or who to vote for. Maybe I’m inviting you to look into your heart, when no one else is around, and see what’s actually in there. What it tells you.
I look in my own heart and I wonder: to what extent am I culpable for the problems in the world, in my country, neighborhood, family? In my own small way, what can I do about it?
What kind of world do I want to live in? Or at the very least, what kind of person do I want to be in the world in which I live? Am I being him?
I don’t think this was my best piece of writing but I just wanted to get something off my chest. Mostly I just want to lean toward forgiveness and tolerance and civility as much as is possible. I’ve travelled all over the world and I can’t help but love it here. It’s my home. And you want peace in your home.
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