In the fall of 1980 the Talking Heads released their fourth studio album, entitled ‘Remain in Light.’ Jimmy Carter’s presidency was winding down, and in November, a month after the record was released, the country would elect Ronald Reagan to be its 40th president. The signature song of Remain in Light would become Once in a Lifetime, a charged blending of funk and world music beats overlaid with David Bryne’s surrealistic ravings delivered in a series of preacher-like cadences. Here are the lyrics of the memorable first verse:
And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?
In the band’s live version of the song, recorded for its 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, Byrne shakes, trembles, and sweats as he sings, conveying the sense of a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It is all too much. Too much going on. Too much to understand. Too much information. What is real, what is important, what is true, what false, and how, indeed, did we get here?
One answer to that question is found in the song’s haunting refrain, that Byrne hypnotically chants over and over, slapping his hand against his forehead – ‘same as it ever was.’ It is in essence a reframing of the famous biblical line from Ecclesiastes 1:9: ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ Here is that verse in its entirety: “What was will be again, what has been done will be repeated, for there is not a single new thing under the sun.” In other words we get to ‘here’ because it is inevitable. We don’t have a choice because we are doomed to repeat the same story lines over and over. Make the same mistakes, never grow, never change, never break new ground. Same as it ever was.
I’ve been thinking about both the song and the verse from Ecclesiastes over the last weeks, while finishing Jill Lepore’s masterful one volume history of the United States, entitled ‘These Truths.’ In vivd and elegant prose Lepore recounts moment after moment in the history of our nation. Many of those moments are glorious, stirring tales of the human spirit at its very best. In generation after generation Americans stepped forward to risk everything for values that we hold to be true and eternal – human dignity, freedom, justice, and mercy among them.
And yet. Reading through the book’s 800 plus pages also reminded me that so many of the sorrows and troubles we live with today have been a part of our country from the very beginning. Lepore makes it clear that racism is chief among those. But we must also add to that list populism, political partisanship, poverty, the conservative / liberal divide, wealth inequality, and the list goes on and on. Just like in the Talking Heads song, or the verse from Kohelet, we got here because we’ve been here before, and we just can’t seem to figure out a way to move forward. Same as it ever was.
But I did not put the book down in a state of despair. Instead I felt inspired, touched, moved, and reenergized. In a way what is truly astonishing is that we have not given up. We keep trying. There are lights along the way, great figures and thinkers that show us who we are and encourage us to be better. They help us to move down the road just a bit, a step or two. Sometimes we slide back, sucked in by selfishness or fear to past mistakes and hatreds, repeating and revisiting them as if for the very first time. But other times we are better. We do better. We live up to the ideals that we believe should define our country, our lives, and ourselves.
Of course the true question is how can we more consistently follow, using Lincoln’s term, ‘the better angels of our nature?’ There is no clear answer to that question. One thing we should all know – it is not easy work. Another is that Lepore’s splendid book can remind us all of where we’ve been, which will help us chart a safer and straighter course through the storms of the future. Perhaps that is why she concludes the prayerful last paragraph of her history with the metaphor of a boat sailing on choppy seas:
“It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea. If they meant to repair the tattered ship, they would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer haunted forest and raise a new mast that could pierce the clouded sky. With sharpened adzes, they would have to hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks, straight and true. They would need to drive home the nails with the untiring swing of mighty arms and, with needles held tenderly in nimble fingers, stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill. Knowing that heat and sparks and anvils are not enough, they would have to forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals. And to steer that ship through wind and wave, they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art: how to navigate by the stars.”
In that clarion call Lepore reminds us all that the stars are there if we have the vision to see them, and the strength and will we need to chart the course.
For those interested here is a link to the classic Talking Heads performance of ‘Once in a Lifetime.’