Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Comforting the Afflicted, Afflicting the Comfortable


I think I saw this on a bumper sticker somewhere, but it came to mind again in our caroling party. We started the party singing to a dear neighbor in hospice care and ended boarding the N-Judah streetcar in a Carol Flashmob making the comfortable passengers momentarily uncomfortable, joyfully and exuberantly inviting them to come out of their private streetcar-riding shells and sing along with the person sitting next to them. Music is my medium to offer comfort and healing to this suffering world and equally my medium to try to break through the gated communities of arrogant privilege and invite folks out into the dancing circle.

It has turned out be a blessing that I didn’t have the talent, training, ambition nor the discipline to treat music as a stepping-stone to concert fame and fortune. But I kept it by my side just about every day since my first organ lesson at six-years old and built a life around teaching it to children and adults. I was lucky to stumble into an approach that treated each musical moment, whatever the age or circumstance, as a reaching-out to a beauty as sublime as the highest concert art. I’ve had three-year olds play a few notes on the glockenspiel that penetrate as deeply as YoYo Ma playing Bach, accompanied a 93-year old amateur singer in her rendition of on old jazz standard that would have moved Billie Holiday.

And so comforting the afflicted. Not only singing for a hospice patient nor playing at “Old Age homes,” but simply being present to the power of music to soothe, ease pain, increase pleasure, energize, connect, heal. Like the four-year old who exclaimed at the end of our Preschool Singing Time, “I don’t feel so sad now.” The afflicted are not only the sick or infirm or emotionally distressed—they are all of us at different times and in different degrees. This is no do-good charity work for the poor unfortunate amongst us—it’s singing out our shared sorrows and joys.

It’s also about comforting the afflicted parts of ourselves—our aches, pains, childhood traumas, adult disappointments, unrequited loves, our despairs, angers, depressions. Music alone won’t cure, but will give us the strength to move on and give us a means to move into grief, not just push it away with loud disco, but to enter the fray with Mozart’s Requiem or Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

And afflicting the comfortable. Nothing wrong with being comfortable—I turn the heat on first thing on a cold morning and because my bills are paid at the end of each month, I can turn my attention to more uplifting matters. But sometimes physical, mental and financial comfort become the centerpiece of our ambition and it does no good to our soul or spirit, puts them to sleep. And leaks into the political when we want to make sure our privilege is protected and we start to cause harm to those who need our help. Trump’s wealth could allow him to ease the suffering of hard-working poor and marginalized people, but he chooses time and time again to afflict them further with the barbs of his selfish power.

We listen to Mozart these days like New Age pablum designed to keep us comfortable and mellow, but his biographer Maynard Solomon insisted that his real role was to “disturb the slumber of the world.” And again, that means the overly-comfortable parts within ourselves. An older definition of “afflict” is "to overthrow, defeat, to humble” and that means to overpower our own complacency, our sense that we’ve done enough and ain’t no one, especially ourselves, that’s going to move us out of our comfort zone. Again, what a blessing that I entered a pedagogical path based on risk, one that demands constant re-imagining, re-inventing. With modest success in my career, I could easily repeat the same tried-and-true pieces and processes I’ve developed and call it a day. But what kind of life would that be? When each year after the school plays or Spring Concert, a parent says “That was the best yet!”, it’s an affirmation that the effort to keep moving forward has paid off.

“Comforted the afflicted, afflicted the comfortable.” I’m adding it to my six-word bio list.

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