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  • Selva Lawler

#18 - With Their Song Still Inside Them

"Most people lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them." Such a powerful quote right! Good luck just easily shaking that one off. It has a real stickiness and a real stinging quality to it.

You know who did not say that? Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau is frequently given props for this adage. Alas, he never wrote it. Instead, in Walden, he states that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” However, Thoreau is so misquoted in this context that even The New York Times, notwithstanding their army of fact-checkers, misquoted Thoreau to include the "die with their song still inside them" coda in an article that The Times published. 

I didn't always enjoy the required reading in my tenth grade English class. Thoreau's Walden, however, made an impact. I still remember the main motifs. The deep beauty in the simplification of life. Thoreau felt that he was part of nature, and nature was part of him. The value and healing that could be discovered in full immersion in nature. The benefits of meditation. The need for a spiritual awakening. 165 years after the publication of Walden, what Thoreau outlines is still - and I would contend, even more! - applicable to our 21st-century lives.

"Most people lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them." It reminds me of another quote from Benjamin Franklin, who allegedly wrote that "Some people die at 25 and aren't buried until 75." Although you know what? He never wrote that either! There is a Franklin devoted website that "has a wonderful search engine that cuts through fake Franklin quotes like a hot knife through butter. You will find that 'Some people die at 25 and aren't buried until 75' fails to produce results - primarily because the average Colonial citizen died in their 30's. A Colonial quote about people regularly living until 75 would have been a fantastic world indeed. Franklin, however, lived to the ripe old age of 84. Definitely above average."

I lack such intelligence to somehow segue the misquotation motif into a larger narrative. The only thing I'm coming up with is that if any of you spawn some truly profound quote and somehow the entire world erroneously believes that I came up with it, I'll appreciate you for eternity!  😂😂😂

I could see how the two quotes I've cited might have a negative connotation. So why not lighten up! This time, I'll quote something that is properly attributed to the actual person! Henry Ford declared that "Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young." That's more inspiring! All of us can think of at least one person in our lives who has stayed forever young thanks to a growth mindset.

And yet, for this writing, I'm in a more somber mood. Sometimes it isn't a matter of merely lightening up. I recently got a message from a high school buddy that was short and ambiguous, but something inside of me knew it portended bad news. When we caught up on the phone, he mentioned how one of our good high school friends, Matt, passed away several days ago. 

Matt had some praiseworthy qualities, and he had some not so great characteristics. He had his demons. So he's just like every human who has ever drawn a breath, you might ask? Indeed. The difference between a master and a student, the expression goes, is that a master gets his demons to work for him rather than against him. 

We had been so out of touch for so long. He was very hard to reach. It's still a lame excuse. I could have and should have done more to rekindle our connection.

What a deeply intelligent guy Matt was. He was naturally hilarious and witty. There are very few people who have ever lived that could always make me crack up hysterically on demand, but he was at the top of the list.

I'm not ready to eulogize him. I'm slowly processing it. The death is still sinking in. 

I had a strong sense that Matt didn't love his job. Sure, he was able to work from home all day, and he made a lot of money. He worked long hours in isolation. That couldn't have been optimal for his overall well being. I feel compelled to interject a quote from Paul Chek, who highlights that "If you work for love you might make less money, but you are making love all day." It's totally not my place to make such a judgment as it pertains to Matt, especially here and especially now. That particular question keeps popping up in my stupid monkey mind, and I do my best to swat it away when it does, but only Matt could really answer that. 

I can't help but think, however, that in some parallel universe Matt would have been a championship general manager of an NFL franchise. He was a football fanatic. He could give you a 75-minute soliloquy about a 6th round offensive guard from Southeastern Oklahoma State University. He had encyclopedic knowledge about every player on every team. I don't watch American football. Nonetheless, being in the presence of someone who is that passionate about anything in life is intoxicating, whether it's basketweaving or bocce. In any case, I can't help but picture how in this parallel universe Matt would've been the recipient of so much love and adoration from an entire city after his team won the Super Bowl. I can envision the crowd of millions chanting his name at the Super Bowl parade. That was totally in his wheelhouse. He had all of the essentials to excel in that arena.

It would be wildly inappropriate for me to speculate whether Matt died with his song still inside him. I'll always maintain a strong presumption that people are doing their absolute best, and I'd like to think that he went out on his shield. 

We sometimes forget how amazingly awesome it is to be a human. According to don Howard, at SpiritQuest our initiates major in The Art of Being Human. And while we learn many essentials at SpiritQuest, The Art of Being Human is most assuredly going to require some post-graduate, post-Sanctuary experiential learning. As my friend Paul has observed, it's very much a continuing education class. We’ll all be refining those skills for the rest of our lives. 

I recently had a lifechanging experience with my brother and two brothers from another mother in Arizona. I'll write more about that later, but I got a text from one of my friends Mike, who continues to integrate that experience, highlighting how glorious it is to fully appreciate what it's like to drink the sweet nectar of the human. In our group text, Mike explains:

"What people don't realize Is it's MORE than enough to merely BE HUMAN I used to want too much for myself But success Money  Fame Any of the shit you would conventionally aspire to Pales juxtaposed against actual, everyday human experience I'll elaborate more Boys just wait on me The info needs to distill But we're so lucky Never forget So lucky Think of all the people's everyday struggles to exist We were born into enough comfort to SEEK And we sought! Who gets to actually do that?!"

That sentiment is entirely consistent with what Thoreau experienced living on Walden Pond. Thoreau's sense of wonder, curiosity, harmony, gratitude, equanimity, and love radiates through his prose in Walden. Neither my friend Mike nor Thoreau paints some naively romantic view of the world. Seeing the forest for the trees didn't escape Thoreau and hasn't escaped Mike. This kind of perspective about what a triumphant treasure life is...that's totally on the menu.

In passing along an email from a recent SpiritQuest grad that deeply touched me, he expresses, "Ayahuasca and the secrets it unlocked continue to change me. I read a great line in a novel the other day. The character imagines that when he dies, God will give him an enormous file, 10,000 kilometers of printed pages, and it will show a minute-by-minute breakdown of his life. As he reads through it, God will say 'You see? Life is a GIFT. And you didn’t even bother to unwrap it!' and then God will smite him." He thereafter continues, stating that "It made me laugh, but it also made me realize that life does feel like a gift these days. I used to wake up and go to sleep each day in fear and anxiety. Now, most days I wake up eager for the day to begin, and go to bed wishing there were more hours in the day. That’s a wonderful feeling."

Life is indeed a gift. Unwrap it! And if you think more about what gifts to give as opposed to what gifts you receive, the universe has an uncanny way of giving you everything you need.

Rather than regurgitate this into my own clunky words, I'm reciting what one commentator wrote about Walden and the notion of people living lives of quiet desperation. "I read Thoreau as extending an invitation, reaching out his hand, so to speak. We can live in a way that is familiar to us - the old life of conditioning, fear, and ultimately despair. Or we can take the bold, perhaps terrifying leap into unknown territory, and live in that, no matter the cost. That is the promised land, the refreshing water we yearn to drink. Thoreau is telling us it’s real, and we can drink it, too, because he found it and drank it himself." Yeah. What he said. 


When Matt wanted to complain about something, he was in real rarefied air. He had no equal. If it was something about you that he was criticizing, you were in for the most searing indictment. You could consider your rear end kicked, as he would tear you apart limb from limb with his brilliance and bravado. Notably, he wasn't mean spirited about it. He was exceedingly amusing in performing this craft. I enjoyed being his overmatched foil and the times when he would eviscerate me. I have never been close to his intellectual equal, and it would have been futile to try to be. Instead, I would mostly remain silent and smirk, and joyfully surrender in having him slice and dice me into a billion little pieces.

I reckon the sublime can only be appreciated when contrasted to the ridiculous. Matt is undoubtedly cackling at me now about why in the world I would somehow tie him into Thoreau, nature, and spirituality. It is a metaphysical, cosmic certainty that he would not have been a fan of any of these topics. Matt came from a Jewish family, and while he had a Bar Mitzvah, he was as hard-core (and I mean HARD-CORE!) of an atheist as you will ever find. He was completely convinced that God did not exist. Period. Period. Period. End of discussion. Matt didn't have a spiritual bone in his body. And he was not an outdoorsy person whatsoever. If only I could hear him fully unleashed to rant about how preposterous my words are right now, it would be one for the ages. 

Thoreau proclaims in Walden that "I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself." The thought of Matt pondering any of this and ambling off into the sunset wondering, wandering, and pondering some deep existential questions provides some much-needed levity in light of his untimely death. He would be way more likely (in a hysterical way) to find a million ways to complain about the entire experience. I can picture the myriad of criticisms, and how he would, among other things:

  • Grouse that the sun is flawed because it isn't quite a perfect sphere;

  • Object by noting that the sun has already used up half of its hydrogen fuel and only has 5 billion years before it burns out and collapses; 

  • Explain that our sun is nothing special, as the number of stars similar to the sun in the Milky Way galaxy alone is somewhere around 7 billion;

  • Highlight how the sun is actually a minor star in our constellation, as there are stars that are up to 100 times larger; and

  • Observe that the Milky Way galaxy - home to only 250 billion stars - is small potatoes compared to Andromeda's 1 trillion stars. 

I daresay that Matt was not the ambling type.

In "Conclusion", the final chapter of Walden, Thoreau exerts a  pressing gravitas that doesn't appear throughout the rest of the book. He emphasizes how critical it is to march to the beat of your own drum. "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

And that's what I could, would, and will 100% say about Matt. For all of his quirks, intricacies, and peccadillos, he admirably stepped to the music that he heard. I can't recall a single incident in which he would sheepishly conform to social pressures or to anything that didn't fully resonate with him.

I'd invite you to do the same. Follow your bliss. March to the beat of your own drum. Dance to your own music. Radiate that inner light, irrespective of whether you become the CEO of a Fortune 100 company or an assistant to the assistant scuba diver at your local car wash. You need not achieve some grandiose accomplishment, but make your indelible mark and leave some kind of legacy. Maybe that legacy is kindness. Or that you practiced reciprocity and gratitude. Or that you strived to be the best version of yourself. Someone once asked don Howard what he thought about when it comes to his own legacy. don Howard, in his usual understated and humble way, said, "I hope people think....there's a guy who did his best."

Whatever you do, as Thoreau did not write and did not say, don't go to the grave with the song still inside you.

When it's your time, go out in a blaze of glory having truly thrown it down. Regardless of how the results played out, people will admire how you really went for it. It may be the end of your era, but it's not the end of your aura, and your song will be sung by someone else. "That the powerful play goes on," Walt Whitman wrote, "and you may contribute a verse." Have somebody else recite, memorize, and sing that verse. 

The powerful play goes on, Matt, and I deeply appreciate the verse you contributed, both in your life and in mine. 


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