It’s been another one of those weeks. I had a different blog post entirely, all ready to roll, and then…as John Lennon once pointed out, life happens while you’re making other plans. Or in this case, death and destruction does.
The people in Manchester had other plans. They went for a night out, to see a pop concert. To dance and sing and buy Ariana Grande merch and shriek and go wild and have fun. They never dreamed it would end in explosions, screaming of the wrong kind, desperate people trying to find their relatives. Their parents. Their children.
I said to someone earlier in the week, if I could begin to fathom how anyone gets the idea that their god wants them to kill little girls, I’d be working in criminal investigation. It simply is not comprehensible to the vast majority of us. We can say that fear and uncertainty make people cling to belief systems that stress rigidity, control and purity, and there’s good research that bears that out (and no, it doesn’t apply just to Islam, at all – not that this poisonous worldview is anything like the faith the majority of Muslims follow). We can try to understand, but on a human level, words fail us.
There are things we can do. We can refuse to let ourselves be ruled by hatred and a need for revenge. We can shun the generalisation that makes everyone who looks or dresses a certain way a potential source of violence and fear. We can reach out. We can see the people who held onto what it means to be human: the police, the firefighters, the homeless guy who aided the injured, the Muslim cab driver who ferried kids to meet their parents for nothing, the Sikh shopkeeper handing out free soft drinks to the mourners at the memorial.
And we can hold onto what’s good in life. What’s real. What matters. The things they wanted to kill: music, fun, families, friends, laughter, community. And the myriad of small things that make life worth living.
The BBC Radio 4 series, Soul Music, looks each week at a piece of music – a classical aria, a pop song, a favourite hymn – that has meant something deep and special to various people. This week’s choice happened to be a song that I’ve known myself since childhood, thanks to a primary school music teacher who had a thing about Broadway musicals. Mrs McManus, I salute you – even though it must have sounded weird for the parents, hearing a choir of eight-year-olds singing ‘Sixteen Going On Seventeen’, long before any of us knew what a roué or a cad was – for making sure that, at forty-hem-hem, I still know all the lyrics to every song in The Sound of Music. And in particular, to ‘My Favourite Things’.
It sounds super corny, but Maria von Trapp’s philosophy for calming frightened kids as a storm rages outside isn’t a bad one at all, for many negative circumstances. For one thing, it’s distracting. When you’re out of immediate danger, but still have dread and anxiety hanging over you, keeping your thoughts occupied with the small blessings of life can stop you ruminating.
But perhaps there’s even more to it than that. C.S. Lewis once had his learned devil, Screwtape, complain that humans, pesky creatures that they are, can be kept from the kind of mindless conformity that often leads to evil, simply by their apparently trivial tastes and preferences:
The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack… I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.
Fear tries to paralyse us from enjoying life and being human with each other. Fearful and violent and greedy worldviews – be they from religions or governments or commercial interests or just people who’d like to control us for their own ends – don’t trust joy. So to get back to the grounding of our selves, those favourite things are a lot more important than you might think.
Julia Cameron is thinking of this when she suggests that blocked artists make a list of a hundred things they love. It’s not a bad exercise for anyone who feels life isn’t moving forward as it should. But you have to be very specific.
Sunlight on old polished wood.
The fuzzy bit on the top of a chaffinch’s head.
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York.
Pesto pizza from Hot Mama’s on East Pine.
The smell of the earth after rain.
Walking barefoot on cool terracotta tiles.
Seeing people with wild coloured hair.
Passing an unexpected patch of bluebells.
Not things of great consequence (except the Nirvana Unplugged set, that killed MTV from the inside, I’m telling you). But things that make the world a little more bearable for me.
You’ll have your own list, and it’ll alter over time. But take the time to make one, often, and see if it doesn’t change your mood, just a little.
There have been a few covers of the song, and one of the more famous ones is by this gentleman, who’d been to some dark places and come out the other side with his joy intact. So here’s John Coltrane. Because whatever happens, life, and love, are what wins.