Human

This song has a redemptive message for me. It speaks to my tendency to be a workaholic, to the drive that doesn’t know when to stop and the obligation I feel to “be there” for everyone at all times.

But even more specifically, it proclaimed a specific rebuttal to a message that was spoken to me almost a decade ago.

I have never worked myself as hard as I did when I was in college. I regularly worked graveyard shifts at a residence hall desk during which time I completed my homework, and then when I got off, sometimes I would go running or to class. At one point I was taking both sleeping pills and caffeine pills to survive. And then I was starting to prepare for graduate school auditions. So I would lock myself away for hours and get lost in my repertoire.

On one of those days, a friend called and asked me to leave the practice room to go hang out with friends that evening. That was a lot to ask, but after a bit of persuasion I agreed, “just for an hour.” I started to get stressed out when an hour turned into two, and then three. Finally I insisted on resuming my practice. As we walked back to campus together, he asked me how I am able to keep going at the pace that I do. I was annoyed by the challenge, and tried to explain that I was just doing what I needed to do. Maybe he was annoyed with me as well, or just wanted to make a point when he said,

“You’re more like a machine that keeps producing and producing and producing than you are a human being.”

Ouch.

No one wants to be called a machine, no matter how much they act like one.

Those words have echoed through my head ever since.

A few weeks after this scene, I was rushed to the emergency room in the middle of the night, and then transferred by ambulance to another hospital. The machine had reached its limit.

I’m only human, and I bleed when I fall down.
I’m only human, and I crash and I break down.

I’m not a machine, and in her single hit, Christina Perri voices both sides of this struggle that many of us face. For me, the imagery of a machine in the music video was especially powerful.

Of course, “only human” isn’t the complete picture. I believe that being human is also something to be celebrated. It’s amazing what humans can do. I added this song to my running playlist and when it started playing during an 18-mile marathon training run the other day, I realized what a bad idea that was. I started seeing images of myself tripping over a pebble and crashing to the ground, knees scraped and bleeding. That’s not the way to get through a difficult workout. In some moments, we do well to celebrate the extraordinary capabilities of humanity.

But as humans, we also have limitations, and as someone who constantly struggles to respect my own limits, this is something I need to hear from time to time. Although I hate falling down, I’m thankful for the reminder that I am not a machine.

Reflections on the Relevance of Classical Music

[This reflection was originally distributed as a program insert at my graduate recital, DePaul University School of Music, Chicago, 2008.]

At a recent symphony concert, a woman in the audience furrowed her eyebrows when she learned that my two friends and I were graduate students in violin performance. “Where is your future?” She stammered. “Have you noticed the hair color of the majority of this audience?”

These questions triggered more questions in my mind. Should we musicians pursue a profession where the “strong survive and the weak get crushed”? Should we feel threatened by a bleak outlook on a “dying” musical genre? If our concert halls are cold and empty or void of the younger generation, should we find another venue or vary our presentation? Do we believe strongly enough in the “rightness” of Beethoven, the depth of Brahms and the spirituality of Bach that we would fight for their survival? Or is there something even greater that would beguile us to such a cause?

For many, melodies and harmonies give meaning to life. They slip through our fingers, but draw us back again. Music gives an idea of perfection that keeps evading us the closer we trod. Live music somehow helps us to live the present moment beyond the barrier of time. It’s a puzzling paradox of hope and longing, of a rightness that seems so close but never completely within our reach. Why does a quest for beauty so captivate our hearts and an aim for perfection frustrate us? Are these ideals really what we desire? Or are they merely echoes of a voice? So often moved by the beauty of music, my heart compels me to believe the latter.

The metaphysical complexity of music not only fascinates me; it allows me to better know the Composer and Conductor of life. Symphonies give me a picture of what God intended the world to be: a place of unity, harmony and diversity. Yes, my world is broken, but not hopeless. Jesus is my greatest hope and most precious treasure. As music kindles that passion and compels me to surrender to Christ, I am empowered by his strength, sustained by his grace, and secure in his love.

Clearly, not every moment is glorious. I deal with disappointment, imperfection and uncertainty on a daily basis, but I finally gave up on consequential thoughts of quitting. In Christ, my future is secure. Music helps me to anticipate a world made right and to sing of that hope even today, a hope that is available through God’s radical mercy and rescue from my enslaving sin. Such a pursuit may not easily add up in dollars, but I dream about taking the beauty and hope of Christ to the most oppressed corners of the world. In light of eternity, it seems as though music—varied across genre, era and culture—is entirely relevant.