As I write, Gwyn’s at the piano practicing a Beethoven Sonata, repeating trills, stumbling on scales, figuring out fingering. Distracting as her mistakes are, I find myself amazed that, after ten years of parental supervision, Gwyn is finally capable of cultivating for herself the joy of puzzling out a piece. Gwyn’s not naturally talented, but from a very young age she’s been moved by music and has intuited that making music tends an important part her being. Over the years she’s grown quite good. How lucky am I, that daily my daughter’s interior beauty fills our house?!
I began yesterday morning by reading a dire article in The New York Times about the demise of the humanities in secondary education (“College Budgets Question Value of Humanities”), followed by a Sunday sermon about the exodus from Christianity and steep decline of churches. The confluence plummeted me into a funk. At times I’m terrified that everything I cherish—beauty, meaning-making, human connection, spiritual and emotional enrichment, creativity, wisdom, knowledge, compassion, healing, intimacy with the natural world—is being thrown under the bus of progress. If you can’t quantify it, earn money from it, or make a measurable difference with it, in today’s consumeristic, rationally-minded environment, whatever it is has no value. This toxic dismissal of the interior life affects all of us, no matter how much we might rebel against it. Almost every writer I’ve worked with has wailed some version of the question, “But what will I do with it?” Even now, composing these reflections, I wonder, “What’s the point?”
This drive toward an end product—this relentless focus on progress—this hyper-attention to the material, the tangible, the measurable, is exhausting. Sometimes when I lay down at night I’m overcome with an existential despair; yet another day has flown by with so little to show for it! I’ve begun to wonder, however, if that despair is not a truthful measure of my day’s worth but rather the natural consequence of a life driven toward accomplishment. I want to extract every ounce of ambition and materialism from my being, instead relishing moment by moment the journey of coming more alive. This is what I’m here for, not contributing to the Gross Domestic Product, not “making a name for myself,” not even “making a difference.”
Gwyn will never be a concert pianist. She’ll never win awards. Listening to Gwyn practice, I’m struck by how she’s cultivating exactly what is otherwise being dismissed and dismantled in our society: Delight. Personal expression. Music—ephemeral, mathematical, soulful. Learning for learning’s sake. Languageless meaning. Hope, because she knows all this effort yields satisfaction. A relationship with Mystery. A reason to live.
Only by cherishing the measureless can we humans know our full humanity.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew