Originally Published: February 18, 2018 6 a.m.
Travel back with me to the late ’30s. That will be a stretch for you young whipper-snappers, but I’m confident you can do it.
I was a youngster then (b. 1931) and was very close to one of my grandmothers who grew up in the backwoods of eastern Kansas. Near Osawatomie, for you mid-westerners.
She was a lovely, kind, good-natured, caring human being.
Cheerful too, which is why, as a lad, I didn’t understand her great love for country music. Now, before you fly to her defense, hear me out.
During the late ’30s many was the Saturday nights when Ga and I would board the streetcar and head to the east side of town to hear Kansas City’s version of the Grand Ole Opry. She dearly loved those evenings. While I delighted in hand-clapping, foot-stomping selections such as “You Are My Sunshine,” I detested the slow songs.
They were so depressing!
Every time the music started sluggishly and the musicians got those mournful looks on their faces, I knew the song was going to be sad. Someone had done somebody wrong and everyone was in the dumps. Including me, of course.
But not Ga. She kept a beatific smile on her face and usually hummed along. Afterward, on the way home, she would exclaim about how wonderful the show was and how good she felt being there. I remained perplexed.
For years, this part of my grandmother made no sense to me, nor, I confess, did the plaintive laments. For me, their message was clear: “You (listeners) will feel better knowing that I (the singer) am suffering too.” Suffering, according to country singers and songwriters, was honored and affirmed.
Years later, however, while reading about Siddhartha, who became the Buddha, I found myself reexamining my perspective. One of his truths grabbed me: “Life is suffering.”
I recall arguing with myself. “This can’t be. It doesn’t fit!” Yet, the more I read and reflected, the clearer it became that our inner spirit is really shaped by sorrow. I began to appreciate the biblical injunctions, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”
But sorrowing and mourning seemed incomplete to me. I observed that people who stopped at this point went further into themselves. They became sadder and more depressed.
There had to be more. Upon further reading I discovered that the Buddha went on to explain that people can save themselves only by relinquishing their illusions and become aware of the realities of sickness, old age and death. This awareness makes it imperative that self-centeredness be replaced with forging a solid relationship with the world.
I also understood that a primary goal of all great religions is to help their followers overcome the limitations of self-love. Narcissism (self-love) interferes with the religious admonition to love others.
Being trapped in excessive self-concern and self-love prevents us from turning our sights out into the larger world. It is OK to be sad or depressed or even sink to the level of despair, but one shouldn’t dig a grave and settle there. The journey down must be followed by the journey up – out of the self and into the world. The adventure outward begins with the recognition that we are not self-contained individuals. We exist in relationship with others. We are interdependent, not self-serving, sad little creatures, reduced to singing sad songs about ourselves.
Consequently, the “poor, sad
little me” lyrics sung by country men and women give, at best, only temporary respite. They are a fix. There is more to life than the performers tell us.
In her own way, I believe Ga knew this. She could identify with the laments, but her eyes and spirit were tuned to the world – to loving her family, caring for her neighbors, and doing acts of kindness through her church activities for those in need.
She could look inward at sadness, but face outward to contribute to the alleviation of suffering. She enjoyed her life and was grateful for it, which is why she could care for others.
Ga heard the words of those songs, but paid attention the melodies and rhythms of life.
So should we all.