Music helps me process emotions. During the best and worst moments of my life, I’ve been more fully in touch with my feelings when I find the right song. Over the past week, I’ve searched for music to feel more deeply the pain I see around the world.
Terrorist attacks strike at our very core: the randomness of those who died in Paris, Beirut, Bamako; the existential fear it could happen to us; the fear that arises in my as I walk to dinner through Times Square. I’m reminded of that fear, with me since I watched the 9/11 attacks as a sixth grader.
The more intense feeling, though, this week is despair. I despair for my country, which seeks to turn its back on refugees.
I despair for my fellow Christians, who believe followers of other creeds deserve less compassion. I despair for leaders who blame all members of a religion for the acts of extremists. I certainly hope that logic doesn’t apply to me.
I searched for the right music for the mood. Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils and Dust” captured my mood perfectly. Listen to the chorus, “I got God on my side / And I'm just trying to survive / What if what you do to survive / Kills the things you love / Fear's a powerful thing, baby / It can turn your heart black you can trust / It'll take your God filled soul / And fill it with devils and dust.”
The fear of terrorism can justify almost any response to alleviate the threat. Even people who would otherwise act justly and try to love their neighbor can be driven to desperation by fear. The Boss sings in the final verse about people desiring to do good: “Now every woman and every man / They wanna take a righteous stand / Find the love that God wills / And the faith that He commands,” but comes back to resignation that “When I look inside my heart / There's just devils and dust.”
I look around at American politics in the last week and see just devils and dust. I look at the Public Religion Research Institute’s findings about the double standard of how we view religious violence. Forty-four percent of Americans think Muslims who commit acts of violence in the name of their religion are really “Muslim,” but only 13 percent of Americans think Christians who do the same thing are really “Christian.” Our hearts have been turned black, indeed. They’re filled with just devils and dust.
I can’t stay listening to “Devils and Dust.” I need it now, yes. I need it to identify and more fully feel these emotions of despair as a read the news and watch my Facebook feed. I need Springsteen’s harmonica. But I can’t stay here.
When Springsteen first recorded this song in 2005, I was struck by the sparse production. I only knew him surrounded by the E Street Band. These feelings of loss and fear, losing faith in “Devils and Dust” made me want to see him back in community with his band mates. Listening to it now makes me yearn to be in community. It made me want to talk with my family and friends about what our country can do about terrorism. It made me want to change the song.
The song I need is Springsteen and the E Street Band’s “The Rising.” Their anthem, recorded as a response to 9/11, is a call to unity amidst the tragedy of those terrorist attacks. During the song’s climax, Springsteen builds to this litany of emotions after by 9/11:
“Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life) / Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life) / Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life) / Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life) / Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life) / Your burnin' wind fills my arms tonight / Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life) / Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life).”
Yes, there’s fear. The fear is real. But the fear is balanced by mercy; the emptiness is balanced by longing. And our common refrain is “a dream of life.” That’s another reaction that staying in the overwhelming fear of “Devils and Dust.”
As much as I despair looking at the world and my country giving into fear, I still dream of changing the song. I still have a dream of life.