Seek inspiration to trump distraction
Needing to transcend the day's problems, we may be inspired by what's around us.
Might Beethoven offer an answer to the political anxiety of our time?
It’ll be a long time, it seems, before workplaces stabilize at a new sort of post-Covid normal, in part because the Great Resignation — or the Great Attrition, or the Great Take-This-Job-And-Shove-It Movement — isn’t letting up. In a national survey by McKinsey & Co., 40 percent of workers said they hoped to leave their jobs within three to six months.1
Why do they want to go? Low pay and the lack of advancement opportunities were most often cited, but right behind those were two factors less easily solved: uninspiring leaders and lack of meaningful work. Here’s what that tells us: People crave inspiration.
Maybe, though, we’re looking for inspiration in all the wrong places. It’s not that we don’t need psychic reward, but should we expect where we work to be its source? Anyway, a lot of us who say we want inspiration settle instead for distraction. That’s a pretty cheap substitute, really, and about as satisfying as a fried Spam supper when you’re hankering for a steak.
But inspiration is important, and you’re very lucky if you have built into your life some opportunities to find it, whether at work or anywhere else. Doing that, in fact, could be is our best tactic to counter the widespread anxiety of these times.
Maybe personal example can make the case. Here’s where inspiration comes to me: I’ve always been a singer — or, at least, I have been ever since my adolescent brother taught me to sing Ricky Nelson’s “A Teenager’s Romance” for the annual family reunion when I was four years old. My study and performance of music since then has rewarded me with many truly transcendent moments, including just last week, when the fine chorus I’m a part of sang Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the renowned Philadelphia Orchestra under Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin.2
In a 70-minute performance of the B-9, as that monumental work is known, there’s a lot of music before it becomes the chorus’s turn to sing the “Ode to Joy,” so I had an opportunity onstage to watch one of the world’s greatest conductors lead one of its greatest orchestras without the distraction of my own effort. I saw that far beyond his technique — gestures and beats and intense glances as cues — the maestro was making his mark by inspiring the instrumentalists to yield to the inspiration of Beethoven’s genius from two centuries ago. And when I did join in the music-making, I felt the inspiration of the moment, too, as 200 musicians joined to breathe soaring life into one of the musical masterpieces of all time.
Indeed, the word “inspiration” comes from the Latin verb meaning “breathe into,” and when the word first appeared in the English language in the 14th century, it implied a divine and life-giving creation. For many people, inspiration is fundamental to a sense of well-being in life. Psychologists who study inspiration say it isn’t something you can will, but that it rather is evoked spontaneously, and then raises our awareness to new possibilities. Inspiration charges us with energy and propels us to act — because, as noted by Todd M. Thresh and Andrew J. Elliot, the leading researchers on the topic, “inspiration implies motivation.”3
When we think of people who have inspired us — great teachers, spiritual guides, political leaders — we may note their competence, their charisma, their integrity or their intelligence. And we may contrast that with others who seem to lack those force-magnifying traits. Yet one person’s muse is often another’s fool.
Take, for example, a political leader who not long ago was widely recognized as inspirational for millions of people in this country and globally, Barack Obama. He electrified audiences as a candidate in 2008, to the point that he bowled over his better known and more experienced primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, who had to that point inspired many herself. As president, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and he inspired citizens in moments of both triumph and of need — in the latter case, such as when he sang “Amazing Grace” at the 2015 funeral of the pastor killed in the mass shooting incident in Charleston, S.C. Yet many Americans weren’t inspired, and Obama left office with a lower approval rating than either Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan.
That split opinion was quite true of Reagan, who was the inspiration for a conservative revolution in American politics, and was revered by almost all Republicans until the Trump era — when anybody not named Donald Trump suddenly became vulnerable to derision as insufficiently in touch with the people whom Trump claims to represent. That suggests another quality of inspiration: it is fleeting — present in a moment, but lasting only if it is followed by action. Martin Luther King Jr. remains an inspiration more than a half-century after his death in part because his agenda was picked up by others, thereby sustaining the force of his inspiring original work.
Which brings us back to today, and the galling fact that millions of Americans would tell you that they are inspired by Donald Trump. There’s not a rational explanation for it: Rich and poor people alike who share none of his worst characteristics are nevertheless enamored of a malignant narcissist, a rich showboat, one proven to be a habitual liar, whose ugly personal life includes incidents of sexual misconduct, bankruptcies and faithlessness to friends, with a term in office characterized by scandal and growing disrespect for America and its tenets worldwide. Alone among American presidents, he tried to undermine the results of a free election, and called forth an insurrection that included an attack on the Capitol that caused death and destruction. Yet he still inspires followers across the country, as primary election results favoring his acolytes show, and he remains the odds-on favorite to again be the Republican presidential nominee in two years. I mean, what the hell?
Contrast that with Joe Biden, who seems still to be rather unexpectedly playing the role of our leader. He doesn’t speak forcefully, seems not to head a movement and was so under-stated as a candidate that even his supporters tended to downplay their allegiance (didn’t see many Biden bumper stickers, did you?). But by the standards we tell our children to adopt, the characteristics of Biden are admirable: He displays personal integrity and humility; he is deeply involved with his family and his faith; he takes his work seriously and performs it assiduously. As a result of the latter, he has recently notched a string of victories that have set the nation on a course to combat climate change, stabilize the economy and provide jobs for future generations. It’s a quite good record set by a decent man. Yet he doesn’t seem to inspire people.
What Biden doesn’t do well, which Trump does, is draw attention to himself. While Biden has gotten things done, Trump has gotten his followers to make noise — which suggests that rather than inspiring Americans, Trump merely distracts them, as he did during his career as a reality TV host. The core of Trump backers turn to him as they turn away from the troubles of their lives — which, by the way, he did nothing to diminish during his four years in the White House. His antics are entertaining, his crude behavior matching what the Trump faithful surely wish they had the freedom to display themselves. His disrespect for the government that he led — notably, the State Department, the CIA, the FBI, the independence of the judiciary — echoes their own frustration with institutions they don’t understand.
What Trump doesn’t do, however, is create a fundamental byproduct of inspiration: He does not elevate his followers. As the researchers Thresh and Elliot note, “the heights of human motivation spring from the beauty and goodness that precede us and awaken us to better possibilities.” 4 That’s true inspiration, but in the political realm of Donald Trump and the Republican party that he has transformed into his enforcement brigade, there is no beauty and goodness. To the contrary, they wallow in the abasement of the democratic principles that gave America its spark. Far from inspiring, it is gravely dispiriting.
And that is why I sing. From the first notes of the Beethoven performance until the moment I write this — days later, with that music still ringing in my head — I have found inspiration, as I have in every rehearsal and concert for all the years I have sung. For me, hope arises from such inspiration; possibilities re-emerge, not only musically, but in my view of life more generally. It is a saving grace. It is not my only source of inspiration, thankfully, but if it were, I’d be okay because of it. I must say that I wish for something like that in the lives of each of you.
Ugliness and despair might understandably attach to us as we consider today’s political travails. There’s every reason to think that we’re not through the worst of the difficulties that confront us as we struggle to save our democracy and to set aright the course of our planet. But our path will be clearer if we each find inspiration — in a work of art, in the words of a leader we admire, in the work of a neighbor we especially appreciate, in the clatter of leafy boughs blowing in the breeze, the smile of a child or the love of a partner or an elder.
It is by finding such beauty and goodness — that is, such inspiration — that we might each sing our own ode to joy.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Montgomery, Ala. (Montgomery Advertiser, montgomeryadvertiser.com)
Salinas, Cal. (The Salinas Californian, thecalifornian.com)
Peoria, Ill. (Journal Star, pjstar.com)
Hampton, N.H. (Portsmouth Herald, seacoastonline.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Man kills himself in cell after suicide threat is ignored
A 30-year-old prisoner in the Alabama Department of Corrections System begged for help, and when prison officials didn’t give it to him, he promised to kill himself — which he did. That’s according to a remarkable narrative in the Montgomery Advertiser by Evan Mealins, which exposes a record of carelessness, at best, by the state agency. The incident occurred despite a 2021 warning from U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson: “So long as ADOC’s current staffing levels persist, people with serious mental-health needs are not safe in Alabama’s prisons, but are at daily serious risk of deprivation, decompensation, and death.”
Water restrictions would change life in the West
The Colorado River provides drinking water, irrigation and water for industry in seven western states, but it has been running far below levels in each state’s allotment for years, even as population has grown. Now, with historic drought resulting from human-caused climate change, the federal government has told the states to come up with a plan to drastically reduce their water draw next year, or have one imposed by the feds. In The Salinas Californian and other papers, Rachel Becker of CalMatters, a non-profit newsroom that covers the state’s politics and government, outlines what would result. Virtually every element of life in the West could be affected. ”I think we’re going to be in a permanent state of shortage into the future,” one expert said.
Cops will search for school kids out after dark
In Peoria, a collaboration between cops and the school system is aimed at keeping kids from getting into trouble after dark. As Leslie Renken reports in the Journal Star, a new specially-equipped police vehicle will cruise the city at night — “a curfew vehicle,” the police chief said — that will get kids off the streets. School resource officers also will visit bars on weekends, to get under-aged kids out of the way of harm. “What we don’t want is kids to be out in the wrong place at the wrong time and to become a victim,” said Chief Eric Echevarria.
Protests mark training to help teachers of LGBTQ+ students
A planned one-day training program to help teachers understand how to help LGBTQ+ students — particularly those in crisis over their gender identity — sparked competing protests outside Winnacunnet High School, according to reporting in the Portsmouth Herald by Max Sullivan. Opponents said they considered the organization that will do the training a political group, and protesters held signs accusing the group of being “groomers,” while supporters of the training said it was aimed at helping middle school and high school students deal with a tough time in their lives. “This training is really about affirming and supporting all children in our schools,” the local school superintendent said.
ELSEWHERE IN SUBSTACK
From The Hartmann Report, by Thom Hartnamm:
Hartmann, a progressive radio host, posits that we are in the midst of American history’s Fourth Great Turning, in part due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It’s a hopeful development, he writes.
“Americans are beginning to once again understand, as Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt both warned us, that oligarchs owning politicians and poisoning the channels of public discourse weakens and can ultimately kill a democracy. These hinge points of history are never painless, but they always leave enlightenment and true change in their wake.”
Thanks for reading this week, and for joining me on *our shared ground, this great America.