You have reflected back to me a part of my life that had suffered from deep and systemic atrophy. I think that most of us live in a constant state of low-grade turmoil. OK, for some that is not so low-grade, but it certainly ebbs and flows regardless of what the center-line is. My new friend, Joe, is a musician from Europe. We met briefly in London as he played a concert in a old, but functioning, community church. When he told the story of this song, inspired from his actual facial paralysis, it was nothing less than supernatural. His song gripped my heart.
Before I drone on writing about it, here is the song.
ASYMMETRICAL LIFE, Song by Joe Traxler
(Joe posted the full lyrics in the comment section)
The thing is, we cannot always resolve the tension, we cannot overcome the trial. Sometimes we actually do get crushed. We so often attempt to numb the parts of our lives that refuse to conform. We try to overcome it with work, hobbies, relationships, even substances – but the truth is that our lives are permanently out of symmetry. They always will be. We spin just slightly out of round and no matter how hard we try, we just can’t get back into balance.
Balance. What an amazingly empty promise. Were you ever, really, in balance to begin with? One cannot get “back” to a place they never really were. The promise goes, “If you just achieve a work-life balance…” or some other nonsense, then everything will be fine. But life is not like the tires on your car; you can’t just rotate and balance it every so often and drive on. Sometimes you need to say goodbye. Sometimes that spark, or blink in your eye, is just gone. Accepting it allows us to move forward. But we are more than just the outward appearance and inward longings that mark the edges of our empirical existence. We have hopes and fears precisely because we are more than matter. Learning to say the final goodbye to that part of you that needs to fade away and die is excruciating. Is that suffering made any less, however, if we drag it out and refuse to face it? I recently read a quote that implied most people are hibernating, waiting for some spark to bring them to life. Sounds exciting, hopeful even. But reality is much more cruel because the spark, if it ever did come (and for most it will not) can so easily burn the house down. The other problem is that we extinguish the spark by trying to hold it. In the end, we end up either cold or burnt out. Do we then just go on hibernating? No, there is more, there is a way beyond. I hope.
Maybe it is a song, often an old song that you have not heard in years. Occasionally a new song like Joe’s hits just the right place. That’s part of the reason I so very much love local music – because it comes with real faces, hands, and stories that you can actually encounter and embrace. It forces you to remember something you have never experienced before. Many people say it is a smell that reminds them of someone or something they cannot quite place. Perhaps it is a pizza that reminds you of “home” (whatever that means). Sometimes the laughter of new friends reminds you of those you’ve lost (rest in peace, Jeff). Of course, there is that scene in a movie, the one you almost lived in real life – but not quite. Then there is the time someone speaks a phrase that connects* with you, something you had forgotten that you deeply care about (*connects much like the jolt from the seat behind you when adding a train car, if you know what I mean). Then there is my least favorite, when you see someone living some aspect of your imagined life, in your ideal job, playing a song you wish you had written, good at the thing you suck at but really wanted to do, and – worst of all – they are NICE! Then you just have to balance both love and hate for them – which, of course, you cannot do because hate spoils love. Things like this come in little doses, spread out just far enough apart to keep reminding you of the atrophy but not quite so far as to allow the long awaited death of that part of you. God forbid they all hit you at once! They are like tiny mirror shards, reflecting back that part of us we refuse to look at. What happened to Joe came all at once, changed everything, and yet did not prevent him from continuing his journey as a musician. Once you catch a glimpse of that frozen part of you in the mirror, it tends to haunt you.
It’s the fear of the unknown and the hope for this to go away…
The trick is figuring out how to look at you, oh mirror. How can we be friends when you remind me so much of the dying hope within me? Are you being cruel by reminding me of lost desires, or are you bringing me hope by keeping those things alive? Perhaps we try to numb the very parts of us that point to what we really hope for. After all, “It’s the fear of the unknown and the hope for this to go away,” that beacons us to either embrace the suffering or numb it. Sadly, we are too quick to choose to be comfortably numb instead of looking hope square in the eye, honestly, and admitting that we want what we cannot have. But raw wanting is not just some vain emotion. We have the capacity to plan for things we want, sometimes that is a good thing and sometimes not, but wanting (in and of itself) is never the problem. Fixating on something that you know you cannot have is the problem. What we want is not really a thing, anyway. What is it that is no-thing and yet not nothing? Perhaps that is why so many today are saying we live in an experience-based culture. The thing we really want is more than the alternate happy ending of yesterday’s incomplete story – that is just a reminder of something we never actually had. It is the thing yet to come that we remember in advance. C.S. Lewis wrote like that, at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia, “further up and further in” to the country that made our present reality the dream and memory of where we were actually going. Don’t sleep through it.
I have no crystal ball, nor would I really trust it anyway (being a dyed in the wool skeptic). Hope can be built on pretty flimsy stuff, indeed. But it does not have to be, hope can have strong roots. Hope takes effort, it requires learning to sing again. There was a story from the 1960’s about Dean Torrence, of the surf band Jan and Dean, who became one of the first big lip sync controversies. He sang the originals, but after a pretty horrific accident could not perform live. There’s a movie, I’ll save you the details. Bottom line, there’s a movie because there is a story after the accident. The song Dead Man’s Curve refrains that you don’t just come back from such things – but you can go through them. It takes work. It requires facing the mirror. The future, though not ours to see, is not the enemy. Nor, most ironically, is the past. But neither of those is life, because life is in the present. No matter how asymmetrical the present may feel, it is still the only reality you have. That makes all the difference, because even if suffering comes with memories of yesterday or dreams of tomorrow, right now you are alive. Your best chance at happiness is your present life. Don’t hibernate. Embrace it.