Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
I walked into my bedroom and closed the door behind me. I pulled the CD out of its case, put it into the player, skipped foreword to track 11, and hit play (on repeat). I laid back on my bed and stared up at the ceiling as the sounds of The Cure’s “To Wish Impossible Things” washed over me. I was in heaven.
Ever since high school, the beauty of music has been the primary thing to transport me and give me a deep sense of meaning and wonder. So much so, that I immersed myself into music, started a rock band, and took a shot at being a career musician. I wanted my life to be musical—I wanted it to be like the perfect song.
I have a poignant memory early in my music career when I thought I was getting close to achieving that goal. Back in 2000, my band got a gig as the opener for a more well-known indie outfit called The Poster Children. As we were setting up to play, I heard some other musicians talking near the side of the stage and looking out at someone in the crowd. Tracy Bonham was in town on tour, and her bassist (who also happened to be in The Rentals) was apparently a Poster Children fan. So they had come to the show; at least that’s what I heard (I never actually saw them). I remember playing with special abandon that night, getting lost in our songs and feeling a part of something bigger. I remember thinking, “It’s going to happen—it is happening.” But it didn’t happen, whatever “it” was.
The show ended, everyone went home, and my life was still pretty much the same. So, I continued my pursuit—I was chasing a music career, but I was also chasing the experience I had just had. It wouldn’t be until years later that I would realize it was not music I was chasing all that time, it was beauty.
Beauty has a powerful affect on us. When we encounter beauty in whatever form—whether it’s music, a painting, the ocean, the smile of a loved one, or dust floating in a sunbeam—it lifts us outside of ourselves, even if for just a brief moment, and causes us to feel that there is more to reality than the here and now. Beauty gives us a profound feeling of transcendence and awakens something deep in our being. Lying there, listening to the melancholy goodness of The Cure, or getting lost in one of my songs during a show, I felt a kind of pleasurable ache in my soul—a longing that I could not explain. But, no matter how many times the song repeated, no matter how many shows we played, no matter how many years I chased after it, I could never satisfy that longing; I could never fully capture the experience of transcendence I yearned for. I could never catch beauty—it is fleeting and always leaves us wanting more. Eventually, I became convinced that nothing in this world could ever quench my desire. I was not far off.
C. S. Lewis was fascinated by the longing beauty evokes in us. He actually thought it presented evidence of a supernatural realm. This led him to formulate his famous “argument from desire.” In Mere Christianity, he said:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exist. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
If we have a desire for something spiritual, perhaps that means there is a spiritual reality that corresponds to our desire, Lewis suggests. This would make sense of why nothing in our temporal world is able to satisfy it. But there is more to it than that.
When we are captivated by something beautiful, for a moment we are no longer self-centered; rather, we are other-centered. For a moment, we forget about ourselves—about what our critics think, about our failures and sin; and all that matters is this beautiful thing that transfixes us. For a moment, we are truly free. That is what I needed more of. I needed to find the place where I was free and live there. I thought that place was in music—somewhere in the middle of a song. I needed to create music so I could live.
In another of Lewis’s books, a novel called Till We Have Faces, the main character says, “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing . . . to find the place where all the beauty came from.” I now realize that’s what I was doing all those years chasing a career in music—I was trying to find where all the beauty came from. I was just looking in the wrong place.
I agree with Lewis that our encounters with beauty expose a longing in our soul for something beyond this world. But I actually think our longings are stronger than he suggests.
Something I discovered about myself through all of this was that I didn’t just long to see and touch beauty—I wanted to be completely immersed in it, enveloped by it. I longed to become a part of it. I wanted my whole life to be beautiful like the music I loved—to have the perfect rhythm and melody; for every note within it to have purpose. I still want that.
Songs are interesting things. Like all art, they can have particular components that don’t make sense by themselves—a dissonant note here, a misplaced beat there. But, when heard in the context of the whole song, they are made beautiful and meaningful. If my life was like a song, I thought, then maybe I could handle the pain and absurdities that life brings. Maybe all the hardships in my life—a friend dying in a car wreck here, a close relative battling cancer there—somehow made sense when seen in the context of the whole. I needed to believe that our suffering has purpose. I still need that.
This led me to another discovery that absolutely unnerved me: I realized that I want my life to be beautiful even more than I want it to be comfortable or pleasurable. That is truly frightening, if you think about it. And I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Think of the Romantic aesthetes of the 18th–19th centuries who felt the highest purpose was the pursuit of beauty and who wanted their lives to imitate Art; or the hipsters of today who want everything from their clothes to their behavior to be filled with cool irony; or think of the average person whose ultimate drive in life—their reason for getting up in the morning—is so they can have meaningful relationships with their kids and family. I’m convinced that all of us—from the most eccentric to the most pedestrian—want to live beautiful lives in some way, and if we allow ourselves to reflect honestly, we can admit that we want a beautiful life even more than we want a comfortable, pain-free life.
Music gave me a paradigm for approaching life, but it also became a black hole that consumed me. When I was lost in a song, nothing else mattered. Thus, writing more songs became my life’s purpose, because it created more places for me to get lost. But an artist can only create so much when they have to work a day job. So, I had to find a way to make creating music my day job. I became more ambitious and self-promoting. The band had to become a successful business.
When bigger opportunities started to open up, I saw it as confirmation that it must be God’s will for me to have a music career. “Of course God wants me to have what I want,” I thought. “He’s the one who put these desires in my heart. He wants me to be happy.” I now had a sick religious justification for my obsession. If anyone got in the way of the band being successful, even other band members, they were not only ruining my dream, they were ruining God’s plan.
Things came to a head in the summer of 2005. We landed a show as one of the opening bands for Weezer at a large outdoor amphitheater. It was the most high-profile show we had played to date and in front of the most people. But, during our set, I felt nothing; no more transcendence. I couldn’t get lost no matter how hard I tried. The beauty was gone. Later, while watching Weezer play their set, I remember thinking how unhappy they all looked. There was no more joy in their music, nor in me. “I can’t do this,” I thought, “I can’t become like that.” Our next show was our last.
Music started off as something joyful and transcendent for me, something that gave me purpose and meaning and that helped me forget about myself. But now it had become tired, lifeless, and futile. Even worse, because I had my entire identity wrapped up in it, music became a source of great hubris and ego, something I had to protect at all costs, which had an adverse affect on my relationships, including my band mates. I had taken a good thing and tried to make it into God. And I had taken God and tried to make him into merely a good thing to serve my purposes. I was wishing impossible things.
How can we live beautiful lives when we are so broken and trapped by our own greed, addictions, compulsive self-preservation, and tendency toward idolatry? There are a couple of insights that have been especially helpful to me. The first comes from Augustine.
Things started to get better when I realized that all the beauty in the world is only a reflection of God, the source. In his classic book, Confessions, Augustine wrote the following:
What am I loving when I love you [God]? Not bodily beauty nor the gracefulness of age; nor light’s brightness, so dear to the eyes of mine; not the sweet melodies of song, nor the fragrance of flowers, or perfumes, of aromas; not manna nor honey; not the body so dear to the embraces of the flesh: no, these are not the things I love when I love my God. And yet in a certain sense I do love light and sound, smell, food, and embrace of my inner being. There [in God], a light shines for my soul untrammeled by space; there, I hear a sound that does not disappear into time; there, I smell a perfume that the wind does not carry off; there, I savor things that no gluttony makes sickly; there I experience an embrace never to be broken by [excess]. All this I love when I love my God. So then I asked the earth, ‘What is all this?’ and it replied: ‘It is not me.’ And all the things on earth gave me the same answer. I quizzed the sea and its depths, the living things that move there, and they replied: ‘We are not your God, seek higher.’… And then I said to all those things seated before the door of my senses, ‘If it is not you, tell me something about my God, speak to me of him.’ And with a mighty voice all cried: ‘He is our creator.’ I looked at the creatures, and asked; their beauty was their answer. (Confession X, 6, 8)
For Augustine, God’s nature is where all the beauty came from. The beautiful things of this world are only a dim reflection of their source. Like a single candle in a hall of mirrors, we can reach out and try to touch one of the million reflections, but their heat will evade us. Only when we get a hold of the source will we truly feel the burning flame. Similarly, looking for the infinite in finite things will only leave us disappointed. We must look to the source. Recognizing that all the beautiful things in this world are a reflection actually helps us to enjoy them more, not less. We are able to taste and appreciate them without getting trapped and addicted, because we recognize them for what they are—gifts from God, and pointers to God—instead of mistaking them for gods themselves.
Still, even if we are properly acknowledging God as the source of all beauty, there are so many things that happen to us in life that are beyond our control, so many tragic accidents and injustices. Too much of life appears random and pointless. How can we live a beautiful life when our existence seems absurd a lot of the time?
In the book of Ecclesiastes, after he spends several chapters complaining that everything “under the sun” is “vanity and chasing after the wind,” Solomon writes, “He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccles. 3:11). That’s quite a statement of faith in an otherwise pessimistic and bleak sounding book. But what does it mean?
I think Solomon is telling us we must trust that God’s story for our life is beautiful. In the movie Stranger than Fiction, (caution, spoilers ahead) Will Ferrell plays an IRS auditor named Harold Crick with no real purpose to his existence. Then he begins to hear a voice narrating the events of his life as they happen, and he thinks he is going crazy. One day the narrator says something about Crick’s imminent tragic death. Crick is paralyzed with fear and doesn’t want to leave his apartment. With help from some friends, Crick eventually discovers that the narrator is actually an author living in the same city, and who is, unbeknownst to her, writing the story of his life. When he gets a chance to meet her, she lets him read the story (including his death), and offers to change the ending, since she had no idea her story was actually affecting someone in the real world. After Crick reads the story, however, he pauses and says, “It’s beautiful. Don’t change it.” He no longer feels afraid. Seeing how beautiful his story is, even the tragic parts, empowers Crick to courageously give himself to save someone else.
We can’t see our life story in its entirety. We can’t know what the next 5 or 10 years of our life will look like, or how we will die. As Solomon reminds us, we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” However, Solomon comforts us with his claim that God “has made everything beautiful in its time.” In all of life’s absurdity and confusion, the biggest comfort for me has been trusting, however imperfectly, that if any one of us could sit down with God and see our life displayed as a story, or song, or painting, like Crick we would say, “It’s beautiful. Don’t change it. Even the parts that hurt.”
That in no way means that the horrible things that have happened to us, or to loved ones, are good in themselves. Nor does it mean they are directly caused by God. Nor does it mean that it was the desire of God’s heart for those things to happen. All it means is that He can take those things—the hurt, the dissonant notes—and turn them into something beautiful. He can, and does, bring good out of evil, even our own evil.
Trusting that God’s story for our life is beautiful can fill us with glorious purpose and empower us to courageously and freely give ourselves for the good of others. I’m not saying that trusting God in this way (or in any way) is an easy thing to do; it is not. What I am saying is to the degree that we do trust God, we can be empowered to live truly beautiful lives, even when it involves pain, disappointment, or tragedy.
After we played our final show and most of our fans had left, I went into the bathroom and began to weep inexplicably. It felt like someone had just died. In a way, someone had. I was right that God wanted me to be happy—he didn’t give me the desire of my heart. If he had, it would have destroyed me.
Even though it took some time, I eventually regained my love for making music, and I’m an active musician again, although not career-seeking. I’ve also made amends with my old band mates. After a lot of years of confusion and heartache, I can honestly say as I look back on my life, I now agree with Solomon—God does make everything beautiful in its time. The hard part is looking forward (or even at the present) and telling myself that. I continue to ask God to help me trust him that, if I could see my existence from beginning to end, all the moments of joy and sorrow, failure and triumph, I would pause with hushed breath and say, “It’s beautiful. Don’t change a single note of that song that is my life.”
I just hope God is a Cure fan.
[button link=”http://christandpopculture.com/capc-mag-volume-2-issue-16-beautys-allure/” size=”medium”]Read more about beauty in CAPC Mag Volume 2, Issue 16: Beauty’s Allure[/button]
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