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How a song cleaned my window on the world

On New Year's Day, without warning, A Perfect Circle dropped a new song, and though I didn’t know it was coming, it immediately brightened my perspective on 2018. It was the lyrics - lent drama and impact by the spacious arrangement and gorgeous melody - that grabbed me immediately.

"Time to put the silicon obsession down/Take a look around, find a way in the silence/Lie supine, away, with your back to the ground/Dis- and re-connect to the resonance now/You were never an island/Unique voice among the many in this choir/Tuning into each other, lift all higher."

Interesting lyrics for a tune that trades beneath the title "Disillusioned." But man, what a useful collection of thoughts as we enter a new year, some of us with our tails between our legs, a bit battered and bruised by events, but somehow, still hopeful.  I read the title not as an invitation to indulge in despair, but as a suggestion to shed illusions that, while they may provide comfort, are ultimately combining to from a mental and spiritual prison.

Unpacking this song, I was pushed into a reflective mood appropriate for the season. The "silicon obsession" referred to in singer Maynard James Keenan's poem is clearly the cell phone, the computer, the social media echo chamber. I decided to heed the advice, and turned my phone off for the day, which meant, among other things, spinning vinyl, not streaming Spotify. All but instantly, I felt a peaceful vibe take a seat at the head of the table. I stopped grinding my teeth. I relaxed my shoulders. I didn’t feel the urge to smoke. Would that this feeling could last, could be bottled and stored in the pantry or the fridge.

"Dis- and re-connect to the resonance now" struck me as a command to, as John Lennon had it, "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream," in the process tuning out the noise and turning up the signal. I tried to apply this to my listening. Instrumental music seemed the proper choice, as songs with lyrics can at times strike one as authoritarian, in their insistence that the text represents a strict narrative with at least the implication of literal meaning. So I let the sinewy, dramatic interplay between the musicians performing on Miles Davis' "Pharaoh's Dance" suggest to me a language beyond language.

"You were never an island."

So true, but so often during 2017, I acted like one – often feeling alienated from neighbors, colleagues, even family members due to the realization that core values and beliefs were no longer shared entities, and reality had become fragmented, fractured, something one created, maintained and defended as a vigilant lone wolf. But this phrase in Keenan's lyric, no doubt a nod to the poet John Donne, suggests that such cloistered thinking is inherently flawed. "No man is an island, entire of itself," Donne wrote in 1624. "… Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Yes. We're in this together, and no one wins unless we all win. How easily we forget this. It is far too convenient to point the finger and blame the other.

The reference to "a unique voice among the many in this choir" conjured for me visions of the democratic ideal. How is it possible for us to be singular individuals while simultaneously being part of a collective? How can we celebrate our individuality in a manner that respects the individuality of others in the collective? It's obvious that we have failed to answer these questions meaningfully. Aristotle's Golden Mean and Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative both suggest a general outline and a possible answer – in Kant's words, to "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law," and in Aristotle's dictum, to occupy a moral ground at the center, or mean distance, from the opposing poles of excess and apathy. It's humbling to acknowledge that, in 2018, we have not progressed past such core questions.

"Tuning into each other, lift all higher."

Well, there it is, the pearl at the song's center. I'm reminded by this of another Keenan lyric, the one adorning Puscifer's "The Humbling River": "It'll take a lot more than words and guns/A whole lot more than riches and muscle/The hands of the many must join as one/And together we'll cross the river."

We're stuck with each other, folks. Let this be the year we make the most of that fact. "Disillusioned" suggests a good place to start.


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