Life lessons from the band
I continue reading Arthur Brooks' book "From Strength to Strength - Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life".
Two aspects that Brooks covers in relation to happiness and meaning as we get older strike me...
Accepting the inevitability of death
When I turned 60 years old, I distinctly recall the sense that time is limited, and change was very much with me, my body, and my mind.
“Death is the most normal, natural thing in life itself, and yet we are amazingly adroit at acting as if it were abnormal and a big surprise.”
Some of us have deep conscious fears about death, but for most of us we simply let it fade into the background, ignoring its reality, in large part out of unconscious fear. But Brooks highlights how letting death's reality into our consciousness is what sharpens our focus on what is important, and what we can do about it, that can lead to meaning, happiness, and purpose in the second half of life.
Brooks goes on to speak about how the individual quest that occupies "the strivers" who achieve success at the expense of relationships, come crashing into our consciousness as we begin to experience the natural declines that appear as we age. As we become aware of changes that occur over the span of our life, we begin to realize that the single minded pursuit that often brings achievement and success is built on a weak foundation,
“Creating an isolated self is dangerous and damaging because it is unnatural.”
The pandemic hit me with the awareness of our interconnectedness. Throughout this period the metaphor of the interconnected roots of trees has been a powerful recurring image for me.
“We may look solitary, but we form a vast root system of families, friends, communities, nations, and indeed the entire world. The inevitable changes in my life—and yours—aren’t a tragedy to regret. They are just changes to one interconnected member of the human family—one shoot from the root system. The secret to bearing my decline—no, enjoying it—is to be more conscious of the roots linking me to others.”
In fact, this awareness has been an inspiration for the justus cafe as a vehicle to make visible the creative connections that exist beneath the surface, and across the globe.
Brooks seeks to draw our attention to both the importance of relationships, and the opportunity to shift our focus to appreciating, cultivating, and nurturing our connections to people.
Long Time Running
Yesterday Patti and I watched "Long Train Running", a film that chronicles the final tour of The Tragically Hip. "The Hip" as they have become known, are an iconic Canadian rock band that included front man, lead singer, and lyricist, Gord Downie.
Watching the film brought sharpened focus to lessons that Arthur Brookes was sharing, through the lived experience of the band's final tour.
In 2016, after completing the recording of the "Man Machine Poem" album, Gord Downie (at the age of 52) was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and faced with the choice that most of us skirt around, "how do I want to live, knowing that I am going to die?".
Facing reality...time is limited
Downie and his neurosurgeon, DJ Cooke, discussed practical choices for surgery:
"What would you prefer? ...living without being able to speak or have new memories, but have more time with your family ...or less time on earth but have higher quality"
Downie chose the latter.
Before Downie's had received a diagnosis, the band not discussed the thought of a tour for the new album. After his diagnosis, which was a devastating blow for his brothers in the band over more than 30 years, and before any sign of what was possible in Gord's recovery from surgery, chemo, and radiation, Downie indicated that he wanted to tour across Canada.
Long Time Running follows the practical, emotional, and relational journey to their final concert in their home town of Kingston, Ontario, in August 2016.
I was moved when I first watched the film when it was released in 2017, and continue to be touched each time I see it. There is so much to absorb about passion, commitment, relationships, and love, in the face of the universal truth that our time is limited.
Gord Downie's journey, with his knowledge of time's limit, offers us an opportunity to consider what is truly important to us, and how do we embrace and act upon that.
Look 'em in the eye
For more than 30 years, Gord Downie was the front man of the band, the man who established the relationship with those who came to see and listen. The Hip was a band that truly earned their relationship with fans. While they recorded award winning albums, it was their touring across Canada, in large and small towns, that bonded them to the people of Canada. And it was Gord Downie's presence and relationship with those fans that sealed their loyalty.
Rob Porter, The Hip's lead guitarist, highlights how Downie seized the opportunity for this connected relationship with strangers on stage,
"We have each other (the instrumentalists in the band) when we are on stage playing, we're looking to each other. Gord Downie is looking out at the audience the whole time. We're each others family, but the audience is the family for Gord."
Downie embedded this sense of connectedness in his practice as a performing artist,
"Something I discovered in the last bunch of years was look everybody in the eye...all show...like never stop doing it. And so if I've got a big note to hit...I'm going to look you in the eye, and I'm not going to not hit it...and it made it hittable."
There is something spiritual, and yet practical, in this way of approaching each person we meet, as Downie expresses at the end of the film,
Very grateful, for all these little things, my god...looking at people all in the eyes, made it clear why I'm doing what I am doing. We're just meeting for a second, and then we're moving on...and it did feel like we're all in this river just floating along..."
Gratitude, and awareness that we are all in this together.
Love and brotherhood
While Gord Downie practiced the art of connecting with the wider humanity in the audience, there was much more to that connection. In Long Time Running there is a palpable, deep sense of the love, respect, friendship, and family, that these band members have for each other.
Downie's cancer, and his desire to tour, crystallized this, and the film captures it. The final tour was Downie's idea and vision, but the band members were catapulted into their own vulnerability, at the thought of being so public in the face of losing their brother.
Rob Porter (lead guitarist) speaks about this vulnerability as personal and protective of someone he deeply loves,
" I didn't want t get onstage and have him have that moment on stage where he was completely lost, and I certainly didn't want to get up on stage and have him have a seizure and have 10,000 people with their iPhones out uploading it."
Gord Sinclair, The Hip's bassist, expresses the love and compassion he and his brothers in the band felt,
"...if he'd come to me in the middle of the show and said, I don't think I could do it, I would have put my guitar down and walked off the stage with him in a second."
It's good being in the band
Sinclair brings focus to the spirit and importance of what it means to be in close, intimate relationship, discovered through 30 years of creative experience together,
"When it comes time to walk up the stairs and go onstage, it's just us. I gotcha, I'm there with ya...if it's not good, it'll be crappy together... It's good being in the band."
I have always yearned for the experience that goes with the metaphor of "being in the band", forging close relationships with people who create together, using the creative process as a way to move beyond the pettiness that can come from competitive individualistic pursuits that are so glorified, highlighting the truth that we are more and better together.
The Tragically Hip capture what love and friendship forged through collaboration can look like.
Celebrating and saying goodbye
The Tragically Hip completed their final tour on a warm summer night in August 2016, in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. They performed in an arena of 6,000 people, but outside in Kingston's Market Square, more than 25,000 people gathered to watch the CBC televised concert...and in towns and cities from coast to coast, all across Canada, people gathered in living rooms, bars, arenas, and parks to listen and celebrate. In all, 11.7 million people (almost 1/3 of Canada's population) watched the final performance of The Tragically Hip.
Gord Downie died on October 17, 2017.
I spent the first 50 years of my life living in Canada. I watched Long Time Running with a nostalgic sense of the possibility of being united, with each other, and the land we call home.
(Watch the 2017 CTV production of Long Time Running)