American Catholics — and everyone, really — should never be afraid of the blues.
No, I don’t mean depression or sadness, although that’s true, too. Rather, I’m talking about what the critic Albert Murray called “affirmation, which is to say, reaffirmation and continuity in the face of adversity.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the blues is a genre of music, often melancholic, that is usually characterized by 12-bar phrases and three-line stanzas. But it is not merely a musical style, because it recognizes things as they are, not as we wish them to be. It is a reminder to press on.
In many ways, it is a philosophy. And it’s one that should take a bigger stage in our culture, which, at the moment, is awash in idealism and happy-talk, more so than usual. Blues music contains a richness that, in many ways, is unparalleled in American life. It is literature as song. Ralph Ellison, the critic and novelist, said
The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.
Too often, it seems, there is an impulse to outright deny “the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience,” rather than keep them alive. Transcendence is impossible, because we pretend such things haven’t occurred. We’d rather keep smiling, keep posting about funny cats on our social media pages, all while saying the day is sunny when it actually has been dark and raining for nearly a week.
This is not how life is supposed to work — and, quite frankly, it’s not how Catholicism is supposed to work. In his address to Brigham Young University, Archbishop Charles Chaput reminded the audience that “a little pessimism,” which he preferred to call “realism,” is “a long way from hopelessness.” Why? He continues:
Hope, as Georges Bernanos liked to say, is “despair overcome,” and it’s built on the granite of faith. People who really believe in a loving God are always people of hope and the joy that comes with it. Augustine could be a very hard critic of the Roman world, but in his sermons, Augustine called this earth “a smiling place.” Portions of his work read like a litany to the goodness and beauty of creation.
We might say Chaput and Augustine and Bernanos all have the blues. They, as well as artists such as John Lee Hooker, recognize suffering as an integral part of life, a part that must be overcome and one that should not sink us into total despair. As Hooker sings in his appropriately titled song “It Serves Me Right to Suffer:” “It serves me right to suffer, suffer. Serves me right to be alone, alone. Because the life I’m living.” These lyrics are sparse, but they are deep. They contain everything good and bad about life, because that, truly, is what life is — a series of successes, setbacks, joys, and misfortunes. We sometimes suffer, and sometimes, life isolates us. But it never stops being beautiful.
As Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, life is a theodrama. But pretending that it isn’t — couching everything in a cloak of positivity — does a major disservice to human life. Consider where the blues came from: the black experience in the United States. Black people had to undergo both slavery and Jim Crow and must still deal with lingering prejudice and racism. I’d shudder to think where we’d be as a culture if Martin Luther King had smiled and suppressed the obvious instead of protesting and making speeches and encouraging all of us to be better.
Faith and life, after all, are all about action. They constitute a journey. We can’t do or achieve anything if we’re motionless. We honestly can’t even sin.
So we can’t just sit there and assume everything will work out. Life isn’t a cartoon. The sun isn’t winking at us as we get out of bed in the morning.
If we want to draw closer to God, find our calling and purpose, meet people, fall in love, travel, we have to move. We have to be willing to try things and risk failure, and, when it comes, we have to know how to deal with it.
And that’s why American Catholics should not be afraid of the blues.