Musical Monday vol 5: envy

And oh, as I fade away
They'll all look at me and say
they'll say, "Hey look at him--
I'll never live that way
But that's okay
He's just afraid to change"

~Blind Melon

If you love a mirror build a statue.
Your friends will admire you.

If you love a statue build a mirror.
Make room for new friends.

~Richard Brautigan

I started coming up with words to go along with music when I was five. I know, because there is proof! Mom very likely still has a tape somewhere, with my reedy little voice belting out something jubilant and garbly. Maybe sometime I will ask her to look with me through old boxes of stuff from when we were kids. It would be something positive to bond over. Even if we don't find the tape, I can still remember it: toddler me singing a song about how much I liked horses, making it up as I went along. Song for the sheer joy of it. It was adorable, but I still get embarrassed every time I think about it. I could sense dimly that it wasn't up to the musical craft level of the other songs I knew, but at the time I didn't care. Just being able to do it was too much fun to let anything get in the way. Let alone something as silly as comparing my song to those of other people.

But now? Lately I care, even about what I did when I was five, as much as if I'd done it yesterday. I am embarrassed that five-year-old me didn't write with the same grace and power as twenty-six-year-old me, even though I know that's totally irrational. I still think it's silly to compare--but I also can't stop doing it. Comparing what I hear to my own stuff has become an inseparable part of my listening experience. I hear the beat, the melody, the internal harmonies, the words, with an ear half appreciative and half analytical. Critical. Are mine better than his? hers? theirs? Is my version of this immortal musical template more effective than this classic rendition? Worse? Does it do something different? And the last, hastily suppressed, underlying question: Am I better? As good?

Here is the emotional logic of the thing. You see, the musicians of today and ages past have worth as people because of their music. They brought it into the world, refined it, and got it out there for people to hear. Audiences heard, and judged, and did not find wanting. Therefore, the joy those people have in their ability to bring music into the world is valid. Allowable. Real.

Something in me changed, between five and twenty-six: I changed for the worse, in this way at least. Where I once had a source of pure joy, I am now hampered by envy.

Envy is not like shyness. Shyness comes from a fear rooted in uncertainty: They might like or dislike me. I hope they like me. Oh, if they dislike and shun me it will hurt! I don't want to be hurt and shunned. Perhaps I can hide and not have to find out? But envy is rooted in a kind of certainty. No amount of encouragement, praise, or positive feedback will effectively counter it. The certainty that someone else has something you cannot obtain, that some flaw in you prevents you from truly enjoying it even if you were to possess it. Even if I had a dozen albums go platinum, even if I packed stadiums with audiences as big as Pearl Jam's or had a lasting impact on lyricism and culture like Bob Dylan, it wouldn't make a bit of difference. As long as I envied, I would still feel inferior, still feel cheated of that joy I had in music as a child.

What makes envy toxic, then, is that it is a form of despair.

Dad had a great speech on the subject of despair. Although he'd come at it the other way around, from an argument about apostasy, also called blasphemy against the holy spirit. Apostasy, in Christian lingo, is the only sin that actually does get people damned to hell. All other sins are either gateway sins leading up to it, or symptoms following from it. And what, he would ask Socratically, is the essence of apostasy? What makes it that which it is, and without which it would not be? To become apostate is to reject god, to turn away from him, all he offers and all he represents. What sin is most primal, then--which is the act of turning away itself, and not its forerunners or results? Arrogance, viciousness, cowardice, gluttony--and envy too--are all the spiritual equivalent of shouting insults or sniveling excuses into your personal phone line to god. But despair is the certainty, the absolute certainty, that one cannot be redeemed. That no matter what hope whispers at the bottom of your soul, it too must be a lie. It is hanging up the phone on god.

Envy, like all the rest of the seven deadly sins, comes one step after that.* To envy is to say, I can never deserve or truly possess this good thing. All hope is lost, so it will never be mine, even if I appear to possess it. But I want to keep it near me anyway, so that I can more vividly remember the hope that I have lost. While that is ridiculous from a logical standpoint, it can make perfect and horrible sense on an emotional level. Emotions are more like chemistry than like math. You can't convince or prove your way out of an emotional assumption, any more than you can add +1 to N indefinitely to make the scent of oranges. You have to replace it with a different assumption.

Because the thing, whatever it is, isn't the actual target of the envy. Rather it is the happiness you associate with possession of the thing. The ability to experience happiness is the prerogative of the hopeful, not necessarily the skilled or the wealthy or the talented or the strong. Those things can all provide different and exciting ways to be happy, provided the person who has them is also filled with hope.

So what is it, this magical assumption that can replace the belief in despair, and pull a person back from the brink of unforgivable sin?

The best way I know to answer is this: To believe that you are loved.
What news will shine at just the right angle into the dim and frightened corners of your soul? What evidence will you find yourself able to actually believe? That I can't tell you.

Maybe it's a little gesture by another person. Say they notice something that's making you sad, offer to help you fix it, and when it works, their happiness at seeing you feel better is as big as your happiness for having a source of sadness removed. (Thanks for the awesome Xmas present, dave!) Or maybe you read or hear something that resonates in some empty place inside you, lets you realize that somebody out there understands and accepts the way you feel, even if you and they may never meet. It could be a matter of happenstance; maybe the wind blows an ad against your foot that says "never say never!" when you were just ranting in your head that things would never change. It's silly and sometimes--to logical analysis--nonsensical. But as long as it works to get you through the emotional transformation from despair back into hope, I say it's legit!

Here's a song fragment. May finish it, may not, but I thought it up while writing this post, so it gets written down here.

there's a hole in the ceiling of my soul
lets in the light, lets in the cold
I pray that it may never close

*There are those who say pride actually comes before despair. And in terms of logic their arguments make sense. But not in terms of emotional states. Search your own remembrance, you who have known the worst moments a living being may know! Does not the false and sneering pride come only after one relinquishes hope? Is it not a mere form of resistance to one's desperate urge to take up hope again?


Amber E said...

Insightful, depressing subject but insightful. Would comment more but must run now. Lots of love.