Unrelenting Grace for an Unrelenting Failure

I walked out the side door of Marsh Chapel. The air outside was refreshing. I felt my head running at hundreds of miles per hour, except this time it was not the result of a fear or anxiety. It was not guilt or pain or hurt.

It was the sermon I heard today, and the conversations I have had over the last couple of weeks and the sentiments and the collection of experiences that altogether culminated into a few words that crashed over me like a massive, relentless wave. A massive wave of Grace.

No, it was not anxiety. I felt alive.

I was going to get lunch and do some programming, but before I do that, I wanted to think about this more. I placed headphones into my ears, and, while walking along the Charles River, decided to listen to Watsky’s four rap songs on his most recent album that are part of entire series of spoken words and poetry, called The Lovely Thing Suite. These songs together form a small art piece within a very messy, sometimes over the top album. But is not that what sometimes makes art so wonderful: its messiness? Life is messy, and this art is messy.

As I walked down the steps, the first song, “Conversations” began playing. In it, Watsky details a series of conversations he has with his father about death when he was a child, and then later as an adult. In the song, a young Watsky is afraid and anxious as every human being appears to be sprinting toward that impending brick wall of death without enough thought. Later, an adult Watsky now discusses with his father the plans for their family after he passes away. As each conversation wrestles with the anxiety of fate and death, the chorus sings:

“[I can see you’re in a hurry but don’t worry cause] That isn’t for a long, long time
That isn’t for a long, long time
That isn’t for a long, long time
That isn’t for a long, long, long, long time”

As I walked along the Charles I looked down at the awestruck wonder in the world around me, I felt so alive. The melting snow piles were melting into fractal shapes of coastlines. It was as if the piles of snow were continents of white standing over oceans of brown and green grass. The fractals were both organized to some fashion, and yet also messy. There was beauty in the order, and order in the disorder.

And then the song “Conversations” ended and “Knots” began to play. The transition was immediate, and the piano in the song shifted keys and the rifts became dark. The piano played gloomy rifts, while Watsky began talking about the pianist Arthur Rubinstein’s failures. Arthur had tasted success as an artist, but at the time in the song, where he was sitting in a Berlin hotel, he had fallen through a series of failures and he had lost his opportunities to both support himself and his internal drive as an artist. Watsky speaks, rather cynically:

“What a strange and impossible sum
To be old while to still be so young
To have sung before speaking a word
To be heard
To be hailed
Then to fail
To be done
To love but to be so naïve
To trust and to be so deceived”

Oh, I get that cynicism sometimes. What a lovely thing it is to fail, right?

The weight and guilt of failure becomes unbearable, and the imagery takes darker and sadder turns. Then, the piano begins to play sharp rifts that cut right into the song, while maintaining a level of darkness. And Arthur begins to gather everything he needs to attempt to end his life, and Watsky describes it all in detail and then ends the song with these words:

“To bid adieu to all of you until there’s nothing left to do but
Climb the chair
To cinch the collar
Find the edge
To step into the air”

And then the piano plays rifts that reflect a dizziness.

At this point I was far down the Charles past the Citgo sign. The trees rustled in the cool breezes and danced. Each trunk contained branches, and each branch contained still smaller branches. These branches followed a mathematical fractal of a sort, and yet they were disorganized. There was beauty in the order, and order in the disorder.

And then “Roses” started playing after the dizzying tones:

“Don’t let my ghost drag you down
If you don’t see me around
It doesn’t mean that I fell
Yeah I’m doing well
I got some roses to smell
I hope you smile when I’m gone
It means I had the strength to move on
To find another story to tell
To answer the bell
I got some roses to smell”

And Watsky invokes the sentiments of another Arthur, Arthur Conan Doyle. He then raps about his wrestles with ambitions, with losing friends, and with moving on from it all. He questions his own motivations for his art, and wonders at the purpose of his ambitions being his drive, and how he finds that he himself is a workaholic. He concludes he is already wealthy, regardless of his personal success and fame. He accepts himself as a human being, despite his successes and, more importantly, his failures.

And the song ends with strings and confusion. In the midst of the confusion, the piano begins playing a similar rift and melody as the first song “Conversations,” but now in a different key. It is a softer, more relaxed key, and it is played slower. It is as if the piano is reminding the listener that it is aware that life is very messy and failures happen, but that it is all okay.

As I turned around, I noticed the shells of acorns all around the trees. The acorns were scattered about the trees randomly, but if one were to define loose constraints around the trees and seed different parameters into a randomized point-generating algorithm about a coordinate plane around the tree, the images generated would somewhat follow what I was observing about these acorn shells. The acorns fell randomly, but to a somewhat consistent extent. There was beauty in the order, and order in the disorder.

The final song, “Theories” began to play, and Watsky raps and sings:

“Arthur stepped off, yeah he stepped offa the chair
Couldn’t weigh a hundred forty pounds
And the rope snapped, yeah, the rope snapped
And then Arthur found himself looking up from the ground
Looking up, looking up, found things looking up
Looking up, looking not so down, no not so down
No knots don’t have to stay that way
No, not so tightly wound”

And by chance, Arthur failed another thing he attempted to do. And then Watsky sings, rather emotionally, and most certainly not-cynically:

What a lovely thing it is to fail
To release those grasping fingernails

And then Watsky describes how Arthur thought that was the end of his life, but then Arthur played for 50 more years, and Watsky’s own father by chance was able to obtain front row seats to see Arthur play, with his hands that almost did not exist. And Arthur’s wonderful performance influenced Watsky’s father as an artist, and then the concerts and music pieces that his father would play in the car influenced Watsky as an artist.

Arthur influenced Watsky as an artist, and there was a chance he almost could have not.

And as Watsky wrestles through fate and guilt in these past few songs, “Theories” begins to conclude, and Watsky raps:

“The evolution of the mind’s not the hunger to conquer
Or to want
or to seek
or to wander
Or even wonder,
but to simply to be
Until we cease to be any longer

And in pulling the courage to be in it all, and invoking an overcoming of the anxiety of meaningless that swallows up the other anxieties, Watsky reaffirms a sentiment that should be said to every guilty failure and anxious person in the world: “There’s nothing wrong with heavy eyelids.”

It is okay to fail. In fact, it is a lovely thing to fail. I have recently had several conversations with friends at bars, in the dining hall, and just around Boston. A few of my friends were so hard on themselves. They missed their marks often. At some point in the midst of these conversations I pressed an important point in a few questions: “Imagine others who make mistakes and fail like you do. What would you think of such an individual? Would you give them a break? Are they not just human?” and the response was often “I probably would, good point.” It is grace. It is “Accepting oneself in spite of being unacceptable” as Paul Tillich called it. And this grace is liberating, like a crashing wave relentlessly pouring life over me. I guess we sometimes just need someone else to remind us that it is going to be okay.

And, I hope it leads to another idea. I was having another conversation with a friend, and he repeated a sentiment I have often heard in many conversations as well, he said “But what good is loving others and caring for others when people can be so mean and awful to each other and to you. You are simply setting yourself up to be hurt.”

But I responded that just because other human beings can be awful sometimes and can hurt each other and live in selfishness, well it does not mean that I have to. Regardless of how many times I will be hurt and regardless of how many times we as human beings will hurt each other, I can still try to love others to the best of my ability and hope the best for everyone I come across. I can and should push against my personal desire to resent existence, and I will try to to, unrelentingly. Hopefully, even as my efforts to make a positive difference in this world fail, I can be as unrelenting as the grace that has unrelentingly given me freedom, because I hope others can feel just as alive as I felt, walking along the melting Charles, hearing songs by a rapper that reflected sentiments in a sermon and the wise words of prophets throughout ages and mirrored in the imagery of the life of Christ himself.

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