Christmas of 2015 is quickly becoming a vague, happy memory of sugar, and family, and gifts, and more sugar, and lovely traditions, and why in the world did I eat so much sugar?
But also music. I miss the Christmas music. When December 31st came to a close, I was already feeling its loss, and sticking to my usual rule of no Christmas music after December was as hard as its ever been. I hate that rule, self-proscribed as it is, but still I follow it.
In the meantime, I have a void to fill. I have to return to all the rest of my temporarily abandoned music for consolation. But what to listen to?
I know I’m not alone in having a deep and abiding love for music and it has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. What has grown on me over the years, though, is an awareness of how much music can affect my thoughts, my outlook, and my overall mood. This can be as wonderful as it can be damaging.
I was having a conversation with a friend about this some time back. We were comparing favorite bands and songwriters, and I remember telling her that I like Passenger but that I have to be very careful when I choose to listen to it because the lyrics are so darn depressing in most of the songs, and she instantly agreed. When your mood is already dark, feeding it more darkness can be tempting. It’s easy to think that moody music is exactly what you want – the theme music for your current state of mind, like that stereotypical pint of ice cream to console heartache, but without the calories – but it can be exactly what you don’t need (kind of like how you probably didn’t need that ice cream either…).
On the other hand, some songs have a strain of sadness, but they lift us out of the sadness. They bring the catharsis that those old Greek plays were always going on about (although I still cannot for the life of me figure out how the story of Oedipus Rex is meant to bring catharsis. Sorry, Greek Tragedies professor!). That is the sort of music I have to force myself to turn to when I am in a bad place.
Music is a powerful gift, isn’t it? We can play music to feed our emotions or we can play it to change them. There is a judgment call to be made. What’s more, a song that is uplifting for one person can be depressing for another, so we can only go by what the music says to us.
To our souls.
Wow… deep, right?
As I turn back to my not-Christmas playlists (oh Christmas music, sweet Christmas music… how I miss thee…) one group that I have fairly recently come to appreciate is The Oh Hellos. Maybe you’re familiar with them.
They’re a folksy indie kind of group, so if that’s not your thing, you may very well question my taste – which is fine. But they are just the sort of music I like, and their lyrics make me very happy. But also soul-achy and introspective. Their songs are a mix of wistfulness, carefree abandon, and intense joy – the joy of light overcoming darkness. Their music is not defined in places like iTunes as “Christian music” but their biblical worldview comes through clearly in their lyrics.
Their recent album Dear Wormwood is an homage of sorts to C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters (of all things to base an album on, but it works!). The standout song on that album is the song the whole album is named after, in which Wormwood’s human, after enduring a lifetime of sorrows and temptations, addresses the demon directly. It isn’t a happy song because “happy” is far too shallow a word for it. It is a dark song, somber and thoughtful, a journey inside this man’s thoughts as he recognizes where the darkness has come from all his life as he comes to the end of it.
I know – it sounds awfully sad.
But the ending. Fierce triumph. A joy so deep and proud that it takes you by surprise.
“I know who I am now.”
It is beautiful. It is a song that breaks hearts and mends them again. It is a song about real hopelessness and the miracle of redemption. This is a song that I can listen to when I am in a dark place because it connects with that darkness as a reality, something we all face in different ways and at different times in our lives, but instead of feeding it and letting me sink further, it tells me that the darkness can be beaten. Sometimes that’s all I need to hear.