“I have hymns you haven’t heard.”
— Rilke

“I want to fight until I don’t feel sad anymore,” cries the young Polish character in the WWII Masterpiece series, World on Fire. The boy had just lost both his mother and his homeland in 1939. It made me wonder, is that why we fight? Do we really think it will abolish our sadness? Fighting might abolish many things, but not our sadness.

What if we could, instead, fully inhabit our sadness in bearable ways? Would it help to give us a wider view of the situation — less narrow, rigid, and vengeful — flowing outward into compassion toward all sides? Would it stop the endless cycles of violence and us-vs-them wars?

Inhabit Your Situation

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus instructed his followers to “inhabit your situation.” Everything was against this great thinker. He was a slave with a physical disability, but he inhabited his situation, and by doing so, he found peace. So, too, in times of war, climate change, injustice, horror, and unbearable loss, we must first fully inhabit — or feel — our situation before we can transform it.

Music can help. So can poetry, prayer, art, a walk in the woods, or a hug from a friend. But in this essay, I will focus on music, for music is the incarnation of pure feeling. Music is our philosopher, our spiritual teacher, our therapist, our whole-making companion in this tragic world — a world hell-bent on grasping, dehumanization, rage, and violence.

Anger, Sadness, and the Divided Brain

According to the eminent psychiatrist, brain-hemisphere scientist, and philosopher Iain McGilchrist, anger and rage are part of how the left hemisphere “attends” to the world. It sees the world in terms of us and them, black and white. It abstracts rather than connects, prefers grasping and competition rather than cooperation and compassion. It interprets the world in mechanistic terms, leaving no room for spiritual and moral qualities of the soul. The left hemisphere is supposed to be a helper to the right hemisphere by breaking things down into separate parts for study, but the parts don’t make a whole.

McGilchrist describes how the two hemispheres are supposed to work together with the metaphor of music practice:

It is like learning a piece of music: first you are drawn to play it as a whole; then you break it down into bits and practice certain passages and analyse harmonic transitions, and so on; but in the performance all that must once again be set ruthlessly aside, or the results will be disastrous.” (The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning)

But we often get stuck in the left brain, without returning our attention to the whole — and disaster, indeed, ensues. McGilchrist’s twenty-year research on stroke victims reveals that anger is the single emotion attributed to the left brain with its narrow focus, rigid certainty, manipulation, self-interest — and prime motivation: power (over others).

All this sounds suspiciously like the world we live in today (and what Jesus tried to free us from with his parables). If left-hemisphere anger cannot be processed back into the broader view of the right brain, we get stuck in loops of rage that lead to vengeance, and finally, to self-destruction. This idea begs the question: Has the left brain hijacked our world?

The right hemisphere, on the other hand, attends to the world in quite the opposite way. It is the hemisphere of a wider intelligence, flow, meaning, empathy, sadness, joy, love, creativity, spirituality, humor, music, and poetry — all that makes life worth living. And yet, these aspects of humanity play second-fiddle in our culture.

Something is terribly wrong. It appears that humanity has indeed been usurped by left-hemisphere dominance to the peril of our planet and our humanity. Even our institutions are caught up in this hijacking. Think of all the secondary schools cutting music and art programs, the stubborn dominance of scientific materialism, the entrenchment of religious fundamentalism — the damage is pervasive in our culture.
But there are signs of hope.

Music Connects

In 1999, maestro Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian literary scholar Edward W. Said created a workshop for young musicians to promote coexistence and intercultural dialogue. They named the orchestra and workshop after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s collection of poems West-Eastern Divan, a central work for the development of the concept of world culture. An equal number of Israeli and Arab musicians form the base of the ensemble, together with members from Turkey, Iran, and Spain. They meet each summer for rehearsals, followed by an international concert tour. In Daniel Barenboim’s words, “the power of music lies in its ability to speak to all aspects of the human being — the animal, the emotional, the intellectual, and the spiritual. Music teaches us, in short, that everything is connected.”

Everything is connected. Music and the arts in general can help restore the balance of our brains — and thus open us to the harmonies of spirituality, connection, cooperation, and beauty. Music helps us reinhabit our right brain with all its promising treasures. The intonations and rhythms of music — with or without words — widens our souls and steeps us in meaning that the left hemisphere knows not of.

Perhaps if we paid compassionate attention to our own sadness with the help of music, we might find within its depths the tender melodies of connection, empathy, and hope that will become contagious.

Our First Language

Music is primal. It was our first language — the true mother tongue. Music preceded referential language in our evolutionary history and is, even now, the language of dolphins and whales and birds. Music, like poetry, helps us move from the left-brain abstractions — including dehumanizing the “other” — into a wider sense of connection to the “other.”

Music expands our souls.

When it comes to sadness, music helps us bear the unbearable. It speaks in wordless feeling, like the maternal lullabies of God — not a distant God “up there” who intervenes now and then, but a loving presence who suffers with us, even while offering us the promise of a new melody, yet to be written. This God cannot control the happenings of this world; rather, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.” But God’s tender voice persistently sings to us within our suffering, luring us toward fresh possibilities with the rhythm, harmony, and intensity of music.

Music can help us bear our despair, until it is no longer despair. Until it rises up to form something new and fresh. . . . “I have hymns you haven’t heard.”

If we can let go of our narrow left-brain grasp on rage and revenge, we might dare to enter our own sadness; and if we can fully and safely enter our own sadness, we might venture a little farther out to the sadness of others — even to the sadness of the “other.” If we have the courage to do this, we touch something divine and wholly sacred: We are choosing to share in the very suffering of God.

Hymns We Haven’t Sung

In these frightful times, we need to find more ways to sing together. But this is rare these days, except in our faith communities. Perhaps a focus on music and singing could be the road back for faith communities in decline? Forget the long, well-crafted sermon (says the preacher) and focus on music — all kinds of music! — hymns, songs, and instrumental music that nurtures feelings of openness, love, and hope. And sadness, too. To stay in the flow of process, perhaps fresh hymn lyrics of healing and inclusion can be wedded to old, familiar tunes that no longer speak to us theologically. We need hymns in minor keys, too, that touch our collective sadness in a way that brings connection and hope in our communities.

But we also need to do our individual work of inhabiting our sadness, especially if we are introverts. I suggest a music meditation with something like the intimate melodies of Eric Satie’s Gnossiennes, no. 1-5, a profound work combining East/West intonations which nourish our right hemisphere of connection even as it cradles our sadness in something larger than our sadness.

For meditation practice, be sure to listen all the way through no. 5, as the last one seems to help transition the listener back to a neutral state after a deep dive into the depth of feeling. In this intimate connection to sound and feeling, you will discover a sense of cosmic companionship; that is, your sadness is cradled in something larger than yourself — the divine “fellow-sufferer, who understands” (Whitehead). The hidden melodies inside the sadness will sing to you of hope and transformation.

For the truth is, if you have the capacity for empathy, you will be sad, especially in times like these. But once you fully inhabit your sadness, you will see that there is more than simply sadness. Sadness has other close friends like compassion, joy, hilarity, beauty, and hope.

Inhabiting your sadness through music will nourish your right brain, widen your soul, and help you develop the ability to transform anger into compassionate action rather than fighting and vengeance. Music connects us not only to one another, but to the “other,” and to the deeper divine melodies of hope and possibility.

Finally, look for novelty in the way you feel. One comment under this particular video (below) states: “When I heard Gnossienne no. 1 for the first time, I basically unlocked a new emotion/feeling.”

Oh, yes, there are hymns we have not heard! Are you listening?

Watch the video directly on YouTube: YouTu.be/Qr4azoVLqL0?feature=shared&t=4897

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