The words, sounds and images in this short film weave together to create something that touches me deeply, deeply, and gives me consolation at this time of crisis and uncertainty.
I have watched it about a dozen times now, and this morning for the first time this year. As I watched I saw out of the corner of my eye the blue tits returning to the bird feeder outside my living room window for the first time since last summer when my neighbour chopped down the tree that was growing nearby. In those moments I was touched by the meaning of the words of David Whyte’s Blessing poems, the everyday miracles that can sustain us if we allow ourselves to listen carefully enough, to see with our eyes fully open.
As this article explains, the music in the film contains elements taken from one of the oldest audio recordings ever made of traditional Irish music, recordings made on wax cylinders over 110 years ago.
On my walk to work this morning I spotted this very uniquely decorated van. I’ve never been much of a fan of Elvis but the song lyrics displayed in the window really grabbed my attention.
“Walk a mile in my shoes
Just walk a mile in my shoes
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Then walk a mile in my shoes”
As I stood there on the pavement reading those words they seemed to me to be a powerful call to empathy and compassion, an invitation to withhold judgement until we’ve really considered things from other people’s perspective. I immediately Googled the lyrics and found this fantastic video of Elvis performing the song live in Las Vegas in 1970.
Upon watching the video, I was immediately curious and moved by the words Elvis shares before the music starts, so I Googled them too, and discovered that they’re from a Hank Williams song.
“You never stood in that man’s shoes or saw things through his eyes or stood and watched with helpless hands while the heart inside you dies. So help your brother along the way, no matter where he starts, for the same God that made you, made him too, these men with broken hearts.”
I found the full version of the Hank Williams song on YouTube and was moved once again by this stark reminder of the destitute place that many broken-hearted men eventually end up.
I’m strongly reminded of the work I do with A Band of Brothers, mentoring young men who are in or close to being in the criminal justice system. Many of these young men have never had any experience of a positive male role model and do not know how to help themselves escape from the difficult life situations and self-destructive patterns they’re stuck in.
These men may not be broken-hearted yet but many of them are just clinging on, only a hair’s breadth away from being swallowed up by a system that will either break them or make hardened criminals out of them.
Today I feel strangely connected to a lineage of men, including Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash (who famously performed in Folsom Prison where the remarkable 2017 documentary The Work is also set), who feel a great empathy for their fellow men, their brothers, knowing that while in many ways the scales of our society are tipped in the favour of men, in other ways they really are not.
How can we create lives which are truly worth living, given that these lives come to an end?
Abraham Maslow, author of Toward A Psychology of Being and originator of the famous “Hierarchy of Needs” diagram (see below), was one of the most influential figures in the establishment of the Humanistic Psychology movement in the middle of the last century. In 1957 Maslow suffered from a severe heart attack. His near-death experience blessed him with a profound and intense appreciation of life, which he later beautifully reflected on in a letter to a friend.
“The confrontation with death – and the reprieve from it – makes everything so precious, so sacred, so beautiful, that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it. My river has never looked so beautiful… Death, and its ever present possibility makes love, passionate love, more possible. I wonder if we could love passionately, if ecstasy would be possible at all, if we knew we’d never die.”
Abraham Maslow, quoted in Rollo May’s book Love and Will
We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.
The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But she does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. She needs people who live well in their places. She needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.