I bought a guitar yesterday. Well, technically I put some money down on it and will be paying it off next week. But I’m excited about it. It’s an old guitar (it’s from the 80’s—and yes, it occurred to me that guitars from back then can legitimately be called “old” now) and it was really comfortable to play. I liked the way it sounded, and… yeah, done! That was it. (The guitar was also under budget, which made it feel extra good.)
The larger purpose here, and why I mention this in my blog, is because I’m going through a process of intentionally reconnecting with myself. That phrase may not make much sense on the surface, so let me explain.
Way back in college, at the end of my freshman year, I became a Christian. And I don’t mean “Christian” like a Methodist or a Lutheran or something ineffectual like that. I mean that I became part of the evangelical subculture. It was serious business.
I still remember one of my first post-conversion encounters with a longtime Christian. I was at a sort of summer camp for Christians (? not really sure about its purpose, other than to make college students more Christian-y). I was noodling around on an acoustic guitar one evening, talking with a few people about the music that I liked. (I believe that I had mentioned Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.) Some random guy came up to me and said, “I would really encourage you to give all that stuff up.” Which is the evangelical passive-aggressive way of saying “you won’t be right with Jesus until you get rid of your demon music.”
My first thought was “who the fuck is this guy?” But I was young and naive, and I was also the new kid on the block. So, okay. Maybe he has a point, I thought. Maybe I would be better off without these “secular” influences in my life. I was bummed though, because I had just bought the newest Rush album, and I guess that was going to have to go.
Nevertheless, I did end up following through on his suggestion. Later that summer, I bought an album by a Christian rock band called Petra (one of the replacement bands recommended to me), and tried to like it. Very hard. The music was not anything I would have been drawn to stylistically, and it was a sort of cheap knock-off version of it at that. The message did resonate with me, however. I was trying to ground my new faith, and the lyrics were filled with “you can do it” encouragement and bold, declarative statements. (Looking back, I wonder why this reasurance would have been necessary.)
So I kept that album, and slowly started weeding out my non-Christian music. Eventually I got to the point where I had nothing but Christian CDs in my collection (including more Petra albums). During that time, I had developed an instinctive negative reaction to secular music. The lyrics expressed uncertainty, doubt, negativity; all the things I had come to mistrust as an evangelical Christian. I was afraid of where such thoughts might take me, though I never expressed exactly why that was frightening to me.
Despite all this, I found myself a few years later remarking that I still resonated more with something like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” than any Christian album that I had listened to. And I thought that there was something wrong with that. I had started to become aware that some Christian music was superficial and overly simplistic in its prescribed solutions to life’s problems. (As I liked to put it at the time, an issue would be raised in the first verse, and get resolved by the second chorus.) But rather than challenge the big picture of what I had bought into, I thought that the answer lay in creating Christian music that contained the same level of vulnerability (and to be honest, artistry) as the music that I had formerly appreciated, while still containing a Christian message.
What I was playing around the edges at, and what I later came to realize fully, was that the entire belief system of Christianity was “superficial and overly simplistic”. But it took me a very long time, and the jolt of some very bad experiences, to come to grips with this. In the meantime, however, I was still firmly entrenched in the religion. To the extent that I set out to create my own Christian music, which hopefully would meet the criteria of vulnerability and artistry that I had set for it. While still of course containing a Christian message.
Ironically, the story I came up with to undergird this music was of a young man who became a Christian and found himself isolated, from himself and others, in a world of phony religiosity. Even then I was trying to tell myself something.
But there’s that phrase again. “Isolated from himself”. I had created a false persona, and told myself that that was the real me. Because that’s how the religion works. You are instructed to “die to yourself”, which means that everything about you is now on the chopping block. Because it may be infected by sin, and probably is. So you have to excise all of that stuff, and replace it with Jesus. (If this sounds like voluntary brainwashing, it’s because it is.)
That’s why I got rid of all my CDs. That’s why I systematically isolated myself from all of my non-Christian college friends. And that’s why I decided that post-graduation, I was going to enroll in seminary, with the hope of becoming a “Christian musician”.
But I had long since stopped listening to myself. Instead, I was listening to the narrative that had been sold to me (and which I had accepted). According to that narrative, I had to be willing to sacrifice anything that was important to me, the way Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own child because God had told him to do so. I had held on to music (because that was something you could still do as a Christian), though I eventually jumped at the chance to become a church worship leader, singing and playing exactly the kind of superficial, overly simplistic music that I had previously rejected. And when even that was taken away, I said “okay” and didn’t fight it.
So what I’m trying to do now, what has been long overdue, is to reconnect with myself. To ask myself “what do I like?” Because I had spent so many years believing that question to be irrelevant. What is important to me? Well, music, for one thing. More important, however, is that I even ask the question. That’s really what I’m after here. To get practiced at this.
Why? Because, let’s face it, I’ve only got one life here. I’m already “not young” anymore, even if I don’t qualify as “old” yet. And I don’t want to end up like another Willy Loman, getting to the end of my life and lamenting what could have been. A huge part of that, as I’ve learned recently, is to stop being passive about my own life. To take responsibility for myself. (This is also a huge part of combating anxiety / depression. Because it feels shitty to think that you don’t have any control over your life, and it feels great to realize that you actually do.)
So I bought a guitar.