Rough and Rowdy Ways

I love music. It can be so beautiful and so powerful. I particularly love songs that capture pieces of my soul, that reflect my thoughts or emotions or that give voice to what I have heretofore found to be inexpressible.

At one point in my life, I have been religiously Christian – a true believer, performing the outward ordinances and keeping the observances that kept me “in the fold” of the religious community of which I was a part. I am no longer part of that religious fold, having undertaken a journey marked by three wayposts.

The first was the day that I decided guilt was a worthless emotion and to which I would no longer pay any attention. Before then, I had always felt guilty – even before I was religious. I always fell short of someone else’s standard, be it my father’s or my religion’s. I simply became tired of feeling guilty, always worried that what I was doing, or even what I was, was not good enough or what it “should” be. Why spend my entire life ashamed that I am not something that I simply am not? Why, indeed, would God create me the way I am, and then spend every resource trying to convince me to be something else?

The second was the day I learned that the opposite of love is not hate; it is shame. The problem when you feel ashamed of being different from a social construct is that it is very difficult to question the social construct. Ingrained in a young child is the law that a child must conform to his surroundings and not the other way around. How is it that as this child grows that he would question this most fundamental of laws? However, I finally began to accept that my problem of being ashamed wasn’t because there was something wrong with me. It was the authority figures that had surrounded me – first, my father and later, my religion. I physically left my father when I could and emotionally broke free somewhere along the way (normal boyish yearning for what can never be aside).

As to my religion, and despite the use of terms such as “authority” and “leader”, I realized that such people were neither. They neither had “authority” over me; nor did they “lead” me, unless I chose to follow, unless I gave them control. Putting aside uniquely religious doctrines and observances, fealty to which is required to be embraced in the religion and which in my mind have little real import, what authority is required to love God, to love your neighbor or to care for the widows and orphans? If this is true religion, what place does authority take, other than the position that it wrests for itself? A sad discussion for another day.

Having broken the spell of being a “subject” to this “authority”, I realized that if something makes me feel ashamed, I can correct that problem, not by “repenting” and better conforming myself to the thing that makes me feel ashamed, but by jettisoning the thing that makes me feel ashamed. Reject that which evokes shame and embrace that which kindles love! I am what I am. If God made me, and I am this way, who am I to be ashamed of it? I used to think that life was about “growth” and “development” in the sense of changing “bad” things about me and becoming “better”. Now, I think that’s largely bullshit – life is about discovery and acceptance. What others term “growth” is what I think occurs when you discover who you are and you learn to accept it. This is not a cop-out to excuse “bad” or hurtful behavior, either – my point is simply that love is much more powerful and motivating than shame. In particular, when someone uses shame to try to control or force change, examining their self-interested motivations becomes much more important than when “constructive criticism” is motivated by love. In the latter you can trust, in the former you can’t.

The third was some years later as I was running on the treadmill in my company’s gym and a familiar song played over my ipod. The song is “Down in the Valley” by The Head and the Heart. The opening lines are these:

I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade
Like ridin’ around on railcars and workin’ long days
Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways
Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways

Acceptance requires humility since all of us eventually find out that what we are includes things of which we are not proud – tempers, jealousies, desires, fears, weaknesses. For whatever reason, this day these lines cleaved my shell and sank deep into my soul. I felt peace, and I felt prepared to stand before God, exposed, without shame, simply asking “Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways.” I no longer felt any desire to mask these parts of me, to pretend that they didn’t exist or that they weren’t so bad or that I could overcome them by just choosing to act differently. Always acting, ever acting, forever – well, no more.

Few songs have the ability to capture so much of what I am in so few words and with such an exquisite arrangement combining music and song and silence and wonderful pacing changes and hauntingly beautiful exclamations:

Down in the valley with
Whiskey rivers
These are the places you will find me hidin’
These are the places I will always go
These are the places I will always go
I am on my way
I am on my way
I am on my way back to where I started
Oh-oh…

This journey, as chagrined as I am that it has taken me so long to come so short a distance, has brought me to me. Or to paraphrase T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know [ourselves] for the first time.