This song sounds like molasses. The pace crawls. It opens with the lead guitar and a synth mirroring each other on the melody line. The instruments in the background are sparse. You get an ’80s synth inflection here, a chord from a ’60s-esque, reverb-laden guitar bursts in there before retreating to the background. Just at the end, layers of guitars fill in the space and a blistering lead rides on top, but it is gone too soon. This song sounds like it is trying to find its place or at least making a half-hearted attempt at it. Maybe sometimes you don’t have a song.
I don’t mean to sound so harsh on this one. This was probably my favorite song when this album first came out. It got more repeats than any other song during my honeymoon phase with this LP. After awhile, it started to grate on me. I’m not sure why. Now the song just sounds like malaise in auditory form.
The lyrics tell of malaise too. We’re ordinary people. We struggle. We are alone. And, yeah, others have had it worse. But you still know what it is like – what it is like not to have a life. Just as the synth and the lead guitar mirror each other on the melody, we mirror each other in our discontent and our half-hearted attempts to find our place in the world.
It’s the “in” thing now to get on your preferred brand of social media poison and share memes about how much you struggle and fail at adulting and how much the world irks you. This is at least more authentic than previous generations who pretended to have it all together for the sake of public opinion. But it’s not exactly fulfilling, is it? To do this dance of making jokes about how the world holds you down or you hold yourself down. Even if you can make a good joke about it, you are still held down.
All of this talk of malaise made me think of Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise” speech, which, ironically, he gave during this very week 40 years ago. In 1979 (also the year of my birth) the ordinary folks were not happy. There was an energy crisis which caused people to stand in long lines to buy expensive gas. The wounds that came from the Vietnam War, Nixon’s impeachment and the Civil Rights struggle had not healed. Unemployment was high and inflation was rising. The decade had seen the emergence of new cultural characters like cult leader Jim Jones and the serial killer referred to as the Son of Sam. Carter decided to address the existential core of the problems the people felt. It didn’t go so well.
Carter opened the speech by repeating some of the criticisms received at the White House. One in particular from a woman in Pennsylvania is relevant for us here: “I feel so far from government. I feel like ordinary people are excluded from political power.” The ordinary people are powerless. They are excluded from the mechanisms in place to affect change. My intention here is not to get political here, so don’t worry. I find this woman’s quote illuminating and as true today as it ever was. The political is always personal, ultimately, and that is what I am reaching for.
Carter attempted to diagnose what lies at the center of the malaise of the nation. He called it a “crisis of confidence”. In our doubts and fears about the future, we closed the door on our past and in so doing, we were losing our identity. Sometimes we don’t have a life.
“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
Carter’s suggested antidote to this malaise was personal responsibility. If each person learned to focus outward to the world instead of inward to themselves, a balance could be restored. Think about how you spend energy; don’t spend needlessly. Put on a sweater before you turn on the heat. Don’t take unnecessary trips. Don’t spend or consume when there is no need. Help your neighbors and have faith in them. Sacrifice a little for the common good. Make conscious decisions to improve your community instead of depending on the government or foreign oil imports to make your happiness for you.
Carter’s argument was sound and was initially well received. It was a potential pivot point for the country. Then after people had a couple of days to think about it, the mood changed. Why does Carter think there’ something wrong with us? We’re the greatest country on earth! What does he mean that we are self-indulgent? I work for everything I have and I’ll spend my money as I damn well please. He’s the president and he’s supposed to fix these problems.
Once the backlash began, Carter, ironically, did not take responsibility for the way his message was received. He fired a significant portion of his Cabinet and would make no further comments on the matter. When the next election cycle came around, the people went with the charismatic leader who promised to make America great again and told the people that there was nothing wrong with them or the way they lived. The country doubled down on hedonism, consumerism and self-indulgence in the ’80s which put us on the path that lead us to where we are today. I wonder where we would be now if we had taken the path Carter suggested 40 years ago.
This is who we are, us ordinary people. We want to spend without considering the real costs to other people in our world. When the unavoidable consequences of living that way finally reaches our doorsteps, we want to blame others and then latch onto whoever we think can fix all the problems for us. We certainly do not want anyone who might call us out or suggest that we might have to roll up our sleeves and play a part in the fixing of the mess. This is not a conservative vs. liberal thing; both groups do this in nearly equal measures.
Sometimes we don’t have a life because we refuse to make one. Can’t someone else just do it for us, please? We would rather wallow in memes about our own apathy than take any responsibility changing the way things are. In his book Love and Will, Rollo May prophetically wrote 50 years ago that “it is now upon us; and is indeed a tremendous event — that man stands at the point where he can be present at the birth of a new world or can preside at the destruction of humanity itself.”
I think what stands between the ordinary and greatness is a combination of taking responsibility and caring for others. It is not enough to have power and make decisions. May says that asserting one’s will without caring is just manipulation (and I can certainly see this truth personified by those who hold power or who seek power today). If you love but do not act from that love, your feelings are merely sentimentality (and I can see this personified in those who say they care about people who are marginalized and abused but do nothing about it).
It’s not as if I have this all figured out or anything. I can talk a good game when I am writing. But, in full disclosure, I am typing this on my brand new iPad Air that I really didn’t need but purchased anyway because of the convenience. Maybe I’m writing what I need to hear which is often the case with me.
I think what it comes down to is this: If we don’t find a new way of living in this world, then this “we don’t have a life” thing won’t just be a “sometimes” kinda thing. I’m writing to you because I think you know too.