Good thing this isn’t a tall order, nor hyperbolic in any way. I’d really like to say I’ve been slow to write this one because I’ve been formulating a well-reasoned and elaborate justification behind the power of a certain song, and that – at long last – I’ve come up with something brilliant and beautiful.
Actually, I’m hopped to the gills on Mountain Dew, and I figure that if ever I could barf out some stream-of-consciousness stuff to meet the theme, this would be the time to do it. (And no, that’s no PG euphemism for anything. Good old caffeine has always been my best muse, and frankly I tremble to think about how I’d react to anything harder. I tremble a bit anyway, at this point.)
The first thought that pops into my head at this prompt is… “Save what from what?” What about the world really needs to be saved? If you’re talking about man’s inhumanity to man, well, that’s just hardwired into the human psyche; tough noogies. Our little primate brains can only clearly conceptualize around 150 people as being real and actual people with real and actual feelings like us; everyone else is a sort of cipher.
Next time you’re stuck in traffic, think about all those rows of people all around you. Try to realize that every single driver and passenger is coming from somewhere, going to somewhere, and that every one has a purpose. Not only that, but they each have their own history, their own feelings, their own favorite songs and favorite foods, their own great memories and terrible nightmares and bold aspirations and secret shames. You’re sitting just yards away from all of these people, all of your disparate journeys bringing you there, to that same place, at that same time. You probably have something in common with all of them. If you somehow knew what it was, you’d think that this conjunction was some fantastic coincidence — to think that the mystic vagaries of the Universe could bring together all these similar people at once! But it’s so agonizingly mundane that you can’t even care. Unless you take the time to really think about it, it’s hard to avoid objectifying them, treating them like some sort of Other.
What’s the solution to that? It’s not like having smaller, more isolated villages and tribes is a sound solution; this newfangled global economy schtick isn’t goin’ anywhere anytime soon. Besides, while you’d feel much more in tune with your small community, you’d probably feel much more conflict with those other communities beyond. We humans really like being in groups and having that sense of belonging – of being special, of being apart from the others. But you can’t have that sentiment if EVERYONE is invited. The cool kids’ club isn’t “cool” if it doesn’t actually separate the social chaff from the wheat, and belonging doesn’t feel special anymore if you know that literally everyone else belongs, too.
But a monoculture has its own problems. In my totally-not-a-real-sociologist opinion, a monoculture is just as bad for the survival of humanity as it is for the survival of, say, a food crop. Variety makes survival more likely. Some strains will be hardy against certain stressors, others will be weak against them but strong elsewhere; if only one strain is allowed to proliferate, but it’s affected by some kind of blight, that entire crop can die out. The inclination may be to make one super-strain that’s hardy in every way, resistant to every possible stressor – but there’s no way to predict what stressors will arise in the future. So versatility and adaptability can be more powerful than singleminded stubbornness. And maybe the same’s true for cultures. Because, if some devastating meme infects the monoculture, and there’s no wide variety of ideology, perspective, or general cultural coping-mechanism… well, it’s Gros Michel bananas all over again, and who’s to say whether there’s a Cavendish to fall back on.
It’s with prompts like this that I realize how easy some other people might have it. People like those I grew up around. Those who believe in humans as intelligently-designed creatures with a spark of divinity within them, creatures guided by God whether they believe it or no, creatures who are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Those people can just answer this with “Jesus Loves Me,” talk about how Jesus is the way and the only way, remind everyone that non-believers will go to Hell, and sign off satisfied in their testament. Things are harder and hazier when you see humanity as the risen ape instead of the fallen angel, and when you don’t believe that you (or anyone else) actually has (or could possibly have) the One True Right Idea.
The distressing thing is, humans don’t have an inerrant moral compass; “good” isn’t a real and external force in the world, and people can convince themselves of the rightness of just about anything – especially if the ultimate moral of the story is “I’m a special hero.” It’s pretty terrifying. We’d like to think we’re moral and we’d stand up against abuse and atrocities, but… we tend to accept whatever’s around us as normal, no matter how repugnant it is. Just look at Japanese internment camps, racism, homophobia, or harvest gold shag carpeting. We don’t want to be outside the norm – especially not if that norm is armed to the teeth and on the lookout for “sympathizers.” I know that this whole relativism thing freaks out some of those people who have faith in a god they see as the flawless and incorruptible font of all good and truth and rightness. As long as they think their moral compass points due God, they think they’re fine – and they think it’s terrifying that others might not have a god-based moral compass. But they won’t believe the terrible truth: that everyone’s got their own selfish little magnet that they use to sway the needle. Everyone’s compass is still pointing every which way, and many are still pointing toward hate, but they’re all telling themselves the same story – that their way is what the higher power wants for the world. That the very fact that it feels right to them is proof that the higher power wants it, because that power wouldn’t lie. So they’d rather talk about why the needle moves for them, and how strongly it does, and how little it wavers, and how firmly they believe that direction is North, than they want to actually walk in that direction or do anything for anyone who isn’t on that path.
It’s not like having an ego like that is bad, or that it’s wrong to let it guide you. I’m not entirely convinced that ego-dissolution is any more noble or productive than being ego-driven. (Though it’s less likely that you’ll natter on about how your god has a plan for you, and will protect you no matter what damnfool thing you’re actually doing.) Still, that magnet of your self-interest may be big or small, strong or weak, but it takes a transcendent effort to throw it away and watch the compass swirling – reacting to all the other magnets of all the other selves around you, no longer even presuming to guide you toward true north. Letting it just guide you toward others. So maybe it’s enough to just walk where you can, lost though you are, and try to do what you can for whoever you find along the way.
But what would I know; the closest I get to helping anybody is blathering away at stuff like this, as if my half-digested ruminations are insightful or valid in any way. That’s the other problem of this whole prompt: the assumption that everyone, much less anyone, could find inspiration or even meaning in one thing.
So, what else could possibly work? It’s not like I could even lean on some secular hymn like “Imagine,” because that, too, romanticizes human nature to the point of utter implausibility. The fact that we have to try to imagine these things is part of what makes it so melancholy: people don’t really want to walk hand in hand with their fellow man; they want their fellow man to wise up, stop doing the weird Other-y cultural crap they’re doing, and walk hand in hand with THEM. “I hope someday you’ll join us,” after all. And even if “the world will live as one,” well, there we go with the monoculture again. We’re not gonna live as one. We don’t need to. We don’t even need to want to! We can maybe just be content with other people doing their own thing and, y’know, not killing each other over it. That’s as close as we’re ever going to come to “saving the world.”
Honestly, even that is unlikely. If a biological mechanism behind aggression could be found – or even a biological mechanism behind selfishness and entitlement, which is arguably at the core of every type of cruelty – and if those inclinations could be treated or cured or prevented… I’m just not sure if people would accept that. We value autonomy too much to ever do those things. We’ll inoculate people against diseases of the body; we’ll take out tonsils sometimes before they ever get infected, just to be proactive – but when it comes to aspects of personality and identity and senses of self, those are just inviolate. Which is a little strange, when you think about it. Charles Whitman, who infamously shot a bunch of people from the clocktower at the University of Texas, is remembered as being a notorious spree killer who just snapped one day. But he had a brain tumor, and his violent tendencies grew over time; he lost more and more control by the day. What if all violence is like this? What if it’s all tiny tumors, or small-scale brain damage that we don’t have instruments sensitive enough to measure right now? What if it could all be treated?
I’m not sure that we’d allow it. We’d see it as Clockwork Orange style brainwashing. A manipulation of the center of identity, of selfhood. Taking out an inflamed appendix isn’t morally-nebulous “appendixwashing,” after all, because that’s not the core of anyone’s sense of self. It doesn’t guide their behavior, prosocial or antisocial as it may be.
In this culture, at least, we have this idea that any change to our personality or our beliefs or our behaviors has to come from within, or else it’s inauthentic. Feeling like we’re being our best and truest self is more important than being impelled to “do the right thing” by someone else’s standards. We are Americans; we have American Exceptionalism; we have American Bootstrappy Independence, and we need to have the right to choose. And that includes the right to choose to be a selfish, entitled asshole who kills and maims and tortures and hates, I guess — even if the person who’s choosing that is actually being affected by some actual biological damage and they aren’t really capable of choosing otherwise at all.
I doubt that this cultural concept is likely to change. (And it’s not like it’s uniquely American, either, though I think some elements of our culture really hammer on this implausible narrative that we can do and be and become anything, which sets us up for some truly egregious cognitive dissonance.) But I think it is further evidence that humanity’s not going to be won over by recognizing ourselves as part of the brotherhood of man. We can’t think that broadly about so many people without turning them into faceless abstractions, and when we think about ourselves as part of that global village, we can only imagine ourselves becoming faceless abstractions as well. On the small scale and on the large scale, we want what’s ours, and anyone Not Us can cram it. We’ll even tell ourselves all sorts of stories about why we, or the people we know, have extenuating circumstances whenever we’re in trouble, or sick, or in jail, or poor — but those OTHER people, the strangers, well, their problems are clearly due to moral failings, lack of effort, stubbornness, or stupidity.
Thanks, ultimate attribution error.
So – making the broad assumption that a song (or anything) could “save” humanity whatsoever – we don’t need a song that tries to inspire us to come together and hold hands. “Jesus Loves Me” will not save us. “Imagine” will not save us.” “Kumbaya” definitely will not save us. It’s not enough to feed the world or save the children, and who the fuck cares if they know it’s Christmastime at all. You can’t just send Bob Geldof a fiver and have done with it.
I promise I’m really not trying to be this much of a cynical asshole about this prompt, but for fuck’s sake, you might as well ask for A Song That Could Make Everyone You Love Live Forever. Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Yes. Don’t you want it to be true? Yes. Is it, or could it ever be? No; our stupid little primate bodies are all going to die, and some of them are going to be brought to that death by other stupid little primates, and all the stories in the world won’t save us. Even if we try to find a song about doing what’s right in order to help and protect others, well, that’s not safe either; this world contains horribly maladjusted people like those who feel it’s right to kill black people “because they threaten white society” or something, and everything is terrible forever.
I really don’t want to leave this blank, or put down something bleak and sarcastic. The whole prompt is fundamentally flawed, but it’s not like I don’t understand the spirit in which it’s being asked. It’s not like I’m avoiding the mental exercise of figuring out what sort of song could actually inspire people to channel their selfish desire for exceptionalism and special-snowflakery into acts of heroic compassion. That’s what it would probably take, really. Because we’re stupid, selfish little primates and we’re inclined to care more about the primates that are more like us, closer to us, whom we know, than we care about the far-away ones who look and talk weird. Because we’re not going to just become enlightened as one; we’re not going to wake up into Krishna consciousness, or turn into Indigo Children, or be transformed by b’ak’tun 13 or any other New Age bullshit. We don’t get to just wait for compassion to fill our stupid little hearts. We’re going to have to actually work for this.
Saving the world – if it means anything at all – means cultivating the ability to suspend your own self-interest in pursuit of a broader and more compassionate perspective.
I think that any song that could inspire that would be a song that acknowledges the differences between everyone, but recognizes that humans are all ultimately the same kind of animal. A song that doesn’t try to compel anyone else to change their values or their beliefs, but that reminds us, as individuals, that we can change our own minds, when we choose to.
So. What song makes me feel like I’m capable of getting past my own shortsighted individualistic bullshit enough to recognize how small and meaningless my perspectives (and problems) are – but also reminds me that, despite my tendency toward alienation, I’m still part of the human experience? What song, by extension, might do the same thing for other people?
For me, it’s got to be personal – not about systems or societies changing, but individuals. Something that reminds me to keep open to broader perspectives, to refuse to shut my eyes to the aberrant, the unconventional, the inconvenient. Something that reminds me to try to understand more about the world instead of rejecting whatever I don’t personally like.
It’s got have something to do with being self-reflective enough to know myself and know my own limits – an ability to look at my beliefs and understand that I was taught some of them, gained others more passively through enculturation, gained others through personal experience, and gained still others through reason (but probably not as many as I’d like to think.) It’s got to have something to do with admitting that my personal truth is only personal, and having a willingness to let it go and reach for something beyond the familiar.
But… it can’t just be ego-dissolution, it can’t just be breaking things down. It’s got to involve building things up, too. It can’t be about resignation or becoming a hermit, obviously; it can’t be about giving up on humanity, whether it’s your own humanity or humanity as a whole. Because that’s not saving anything; that’s just refusing to play. Understanding the limits and the arbitrariness of what I know and who I am have often alienated me from myself, ironically enough – being aware of how flimsy and constructed everything is, it’s hard to just exist “in the moment.” However, I do think that being mindful of all that subjectivity has, in the end, made it easier to be objective and empathetic. (And, recursively enough, that ability has made it easier to suspend judgment not just of others, but of myself – making it easier to extend myself the same trust and compassion as I’d give someone else. A little bit, anyway; that bit is still kind of in the works.)
In short: the song has to encourage the listener to accept the limits of their minds and their selves, but it also has to encourage the listener to go beyond their comfort zone and to be willing to experience humanity in all its fullness — with the understanding that every other human who is or was or ever will be is just a slightly different iteration of the same damn pattern. That everyone is simultaneously utterly unique, utterly alone, and utterly similar to everyone else in fundamental ways.
I’ve thought about it for a long while, and I’ve finally realized what song, to me, encompasses this line-walking between the animal and the divine, the meat and the meaning. The song that, perhaps, best traces the limits of the baffling fractal that is humanity.
Feed my will to feel this moment,
Urging me to cross the line.
Reaching out to embrace the random.
Reaching out to embrace whatever may come.
I embrace my desire to
feel the rhythm, to feel connected
enough to step aside and weep like a widow.
To feel inspired, to fathom the power,
to witness the beauty, to bathe in the fountain,
to swing on the spiral of our divinity and still be a human.
It’s not like this song really could save the world. Not everyone has the luxury of spending time in mindful contemplation. Some people are overwhelmed by the difficulty of trying to keep their meat-husks alive and functioning for another day, and they don’t have the time or patience for anything that isn’t subsistence-level survival. One might be forgiven for wanting to tell Maynard and company to take their expanded consciousness and shove it.
But. If everyone did have that luxury – if everyone did have time enough and clarity enough to pursue this mindfulness, to feel deep emotional connections, to grieve and to be awed, to feel inspiration and agency, to suspend judgment, to try to transcend our limits… It’s true that this song couldn’t save the world, and nothing else could either. But I think it might be a reasonable description of what a “saved” world might look like, on the individual level, if it were attainable.