“For what is a man, what has he got / If not himself, then he has naught / To say the things he truly feels / And not the words of one who kneels / The record shows I took the blows / And did it my way”
– From “My Way” by Paul Anka. For this – please reference the Sid Vicious version.
“You know / I wish that I had Jessie’s girl / I wish that I had Jessie’s girl / Where can I find a woman like that”
– From “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield
“All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day / put the pieces back together my way”
– From “Daylight” by Aesop Rock
Why the musical journey this morning? Because these 3 songs embody 3 different approaches to asking “what if?”
Forcing ourselves to ask “what if” more often is hard. It creates doubt. It can muddy our loyalties and undermine our authorities. It can be stressful. And maybe that’s why we have to do it, because it makes certainty more of a myth, and less of something sacred.
Life is confusing, so when someone holds themselves out there as a beacon of clarity, it gets our attention. Once we discover the signal in the noise, we don’t want to keep searching – not out of laziness, it’s just human nature. We like answers. There are (at least) two paths that our attention takes once we’ve “found” someone who offers a satisfactory answer: admiration and envy.
We can admire the foresight of a great leader and feel inspired by their message, but we can also experience envy – where we measure ourselves relatively, and feel that we come up short. Sometimes we experience both at the same time, “they’re amazing, but I could never do THAT.” Take a moment and think about how this plays out in newspapers, on the evening news, on social media…
Since envy is to admit that someone is better than us (not exactly something our ego appreciates), we often subconsciously replace it with the hollow “like-button-click” form of admiration. Can you separate, “I’m that way too,” from “nice, but I’m not that way,” from “it’s not actually supposed to be that way,” from “could we try that THIS way?”* I hope so – because that means you’re thinking in counterfactuals (and a level above the faux-authenticity that’s become so commonplace). Sorry, not sorry Snap Chat self-help industry.
“My Way” is supposed to inspire us and lend validation to overcoming our personal struggle, but let’s face it – pride is one thing, but it’s kind of lonely at the end of that road. “Jessie’s Girl” captures jealousy and envy – complete with only wistfully wishing for a similar love of one’s own. Said another way, Sid has studded shoulder pads that you’d rather not cry on, while Rick’s are (fashionably for the time) padded.
So then what is “Daylight” doing here? It’s reminding us to ask “what if…” too. It’s reminding us to pick apart the day and put it back together “My Way.” Not because you’re uninspired and envious, but because you can’t put yesterday back together, but you can put today together.
It’s called “Daylight” for a reason, and that’s the use of counterfactuals that we’re after. “My Way” is getting through the long night while understanding the inherent uncertainty of darkness. To “pick apart the day” and then apply it to the next is to be unaccepting of the fantasy that occupies wishing for “Jessie’s Girl.”
It’s poetic tough love,** and counterfactuals are means to make sure we’re getting it. As the Digital Underground sample professes at the beginning and the end of the track, “Yes, yes, ya’ll, and you don’t stop / and keep on, ‘til the break of dawn.”
Keep on asking “what if,” ‘til the break of dawn.
*For more on envy, check out NPR’s Hidden Brain episode “Feeding the Green-Eyed Monster: What Happens When Envy Turns Ugly” – also called “Counting Other People’s Blessings.”
**One of my favorite lines from the song where he eloquently squashes a “Jessie’s Girl” –type ideal is: “This origami dream is beautiful / but man those wings will never leave the ground / without a feather and a lottery ticket, now settle down,”