One of my Lenten sacrifices is not skipping songs on my iPod. I can choose the playlist, but if a song does not fit my mood, I can’t skip it.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, part of my inspiration was this 2009 post from Betty Duffy. The excerpt that has stuck with me all these years is this:
I set [the iPod] on “shuffle” and skip song after song that appears on the screen. “No. Not that. Can’t tolerate this one right now. Does not match my mood.” Music must serve me by sustaining desired feelings or changing undesirable ones. And it had better not challenge me, because my life is challenging enough.
It’s sad because it is yet another sign of my insistence on making everything I touch, see, hear, taste, or smell reflect my emotions and my experience. And it is another sign of how almost all technological gadgetry has the ability to foster narcissism.
I have thought of those words almost every week since I first read them, and they were a big part of the inspiration for this Lenten fast.
There was another, slightly less erudite source of inspiration too:
I was out for a jog during one of the last cold spells, and I couldn’t change songs on my iPod because I was wearing gloves. I didn’t want to have to keep taking off the gloves, and I’d begun to despair that I wouldn’t be able to control my music. But then I had a stroke of genius in which I remembered that touch screens sense the warmth in your skin. All of my skin was wrapped in warm layers of clothing, except…my nose! Of course! That’s how I could still use my iPod!
As if I have not already startled my poor neighbors enough with my attempts at exercise, I can only imagine what they thought to see the crazy jogging woman lumbering down the street in freezing drizzle, occasionally rubbing her iPod on her nose.
(Hi. My name is Jen. And I’m ridiculous.)
Anyway, after the second time I had to stop to look up a new song — WITH MY NOSE — it occurred to me: I am really attached to being able to listen to the perfect song.
Right then and there, I committed to give up skipping songs for Lent. (After I nose-chose the perfect tune, of course.)
As Ash Wednesday approached, I began to second-guess the decision because it seemed so silly. I almost backed out of the commitment, but I’m so glad I didn’t. As insignificant a sacrifice as it may seem on the surface, it’s already been quite transformative.
Yesterday evening, for example, I was driving home from dropping something at my mom’s house, and I had a rare moment of being in the car by myself. It was a chance to blast the stereo and lose myself in the music, which is one of my favorite pleasures in the world. Immediately, an old song came on that is not my favorite. I’ve been meaning to take it off of my main playlist for years, so I instinctively reached to skip it.
Then I remembered that I had to let it play.
Since my only other choice was silence, I decided to make the best of the song.
During the first few seconds, which I’ve always found kind of grating, I thanked God for artists who are willing to put themselves out there to make music. I listened carefully to each instrument, and realized for the first time that this was an impressively complicated arragement, involving expert use of multiple instruments.
Then I paid close attention to the lyrics and realized that the words were actually quite thought-provoking. Even though the tune still isn’t quite my style, I found myself deeply connected to what the artist was trying to convey, and it triggered in me a flurry of inspiration. My mind was filled with new ideas and new angles on old ideas, none of which would have come to me if I’d skipped the song.
I ended up driving aimlessly around the neighborhood to listen to the music for a while longer. As I let the songs flow, taking whatever inspiration I could draw from each of them, it occurred to me that I was in a completely different mindset than normal.
Specifically: I had been freed from a heavy, ever-present feeling of buyer’s remorse.
When I listen to music in my normal mode, part of me is always wondering if I chose the best song. I thought I was in the mood for a Paul Oakenfold dance remix, but maybe it’s hiphop kind of afternoon? What about the Gypsy Kings — would I be more inspired if I were listening to one of their acoustic masterpieces?
It’s like when I’m at the restaurant, and I order fried shrimp but then spend the entire time wondering if I should have asked for the mushroom swiss burger. Once I get myself in “Choosing What’s Best for Jen” mode, it’s hard to get out. With each bite of shrimp, I’m wondering if my tastebuds would be even more pleased by Angus beef covered in mushrooms.
But, as I’m realizing this Lent, that energy-sapping feeling of regretting my choices is dependent on having choices in the first place.
Not having a choice about which song I listen to makes me calculate finding pleasure in songs differently. Instead of actively working to perfectly assemble the music so that it will make me happy, I derive happiness from whatever is in front of me. The switch in mindsets in the same switch you make when you go from being a shopper making a purchase to being a recipient receiving a gift. One involves feeling powerful, deciding which among a variety of items will best please you; the other involves receptivity, seeking what is good in whatever you have been given.
If I were stranded in the wilderness, hungry, and a rescue team showed up with a plate of fried shrimp, a mushroom swiss burger would be the furthest thing from my mind. I would thank God for every single morsel of the shrimp, not just because I was hungry, but because it was my only choice.
When I’m in Choice Mode, I am counting on my own decision-making skills to bring me happiness, which opens the floodgates for all sorts of analysis and second-guessing. When I have no choices, however, I automatically switch into Gift-Receiving Mode. And in that mode, it’s second nature to find what’s good in whatever you have received.
This gives me new insight into why the poor are closer to God, and why people who lived before the modern era were too:
Perhaps the defining characteristic of 21st-century first-world life is our sheer amount of choices — we have endless control over everything from what we eat to what music we hear to what the temperature is inside our houses.
And the more control you have, the more you begin to think that you don’t need God — because, frankly, you feel like you are a god.
Trying to be a god is exhausting. As even my silly fast from skipping songs has shown, it takes up so, so much energy to live my life trying to control my environment to make sure that it is all perfectly suited to my tastes.
This iPod experiment has inspired me to give up choices in other areas as well, to stop trying to be god of my own little universe. It’s not easy for an Olympian control freak like me. But when I do? Suddenly, everything becomes a gift.