In his latest essay, contributor James Shotwell explores the importance of community and empathy through the latest single from NEEDTOBREATHE.
Love is a rebellious act. Anyone can light a fire or throw a punch, but not everyone is comfortable being vulnerable. Love requires vulnerability. More than anything else, love demands that we position ourselves to be hurt over and over again. Some would claim that such decisions are a sign of insanity, but anyone who has ever known true love will tell you that it’s always worth the risk. The warmth of a loving embrace is perhaps the most comforting force on this planet. To be seen and accepted for who you are rather than what you hope others believe you to be is the most empowering experience in life.
NEEDTOBREATHE understand risk. For the better part of two decades now, the South Carolina rock band has consistently challenged themselves and their fans to be more transparent. Their songs rip open every scar and suture we use to hide our weakest moments and worst traits in hopes of bringing understanding and empathy into the world. For them, building community is everything, and the only way to forge a foundation of lasting bonds is through unwavering truth. They ask listeners to find comfort in being themselves and demand they make spaces for others to do the same. As Kurt Cobain would say, “Come as you are.”
“Into The Mystery,” the lead single off NEEDTOBREATHE’s eighth studio album of the same name, finds the road-weary group recommitting themselves to their purpose. It’s a love song written for anyone who needs to feel less alone. Some will undoubtedly interpret the lyrics as a cry to Christ or God or some higher power, but I don’t feel such connections are necessary. A savior is anyone or anything that reaches through the fog of fear and discomfort to make you feel like you belong. It’s not about some physical form that rushes into bad times and saves you as it is a feeling you get when you know you can breathe easy, even if only for a moment. As the lyrics describe:
Love is not a cage, love is not a path
Love’s a steady hand waiting for the storm to pass
You loved me then when you needed me
But will you still when it’s not so easy
Growing up, I always idolized my grandfather. He was a Presbyterian preacher who spent most of his life doing good deeds for the communities that welcomed him. There was no potluck, fundraiser, wedding, funeral, or graduation party he would not attend. If someone lost their spouse, he made sure they were fed and cared for as long as it took for them to process their grief. If someone needed a man of faith to oversee their wedding, he was their man. He would put the world before himself and never think twice. For him, acts of service were his purpose. He knew that making people feel like they were a part of something bigger than themselves was of the utmost importance.
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I remember countless days where I watched as my grandfather welcomed a revolving door of people into his home and office for the sole purpose of offering them comfort. I never really knew what they were going through, and I got the sense that he didn’t either, but it didn’t matter. People were suffering. They had money problems, romantic entanglements, demanding children, and unruly relatives. Some had received news from their doctors that things were never going to get better. Others didn’t even know what was wrong, but they could not shake the feeling that nothing would ever be good ever again. Maybe my grandfather couldn’t always give them what they wanted, but he gave them what they needed. Sometimes, just being there is enough.
You don’t need God to believe in the power of community. A shared belief in an omnipresent being certainly helps create spaces where people can gather and share, but it’s not a requirement. All that you need is a willingness to be vulnerable with strangers. To find within yourself the strength to accept others as they are and to admit the things you are not. If you can shake loose from the shackles of whatever lies you tell yourself to avoid getting to the heart of what makes you tick, then you can find yourself surrounded by others who feel just as lost as you, and through that shared understanding, beautiful things can unfold.
I don’t know everything the members of NEEDTOBREATHE believe, but I know they recognize the tremendous power of music. Their songs are open calls to people in need of something. They are moments in time committed to tape for the sole purpose of providing comfort in a world of endless chaos and heartache. Like a letter from someone that you haven’t seen in ages, “Into The Mystery” is a reminder that we are never truly alone as long as we have songs. We are always just a few clicks or gestures on a stereo away from feeling the sonic embrace of people who, like you and I, are doing their best to make sense of something nobody in the history of humankind has been able to comprehend.
To end here without acknowledging that sometimes a song or album isn’t enough would downplay the sense of longing and isolation that many of us feel. When those times arise, I recall a passage from mindfulness leader Ram Dass that I recently had tattooed onto my right arm. He believed that what often weighs us down is our obsession over everything other than what is happening right now. We are worried about what will happen next week or overthinking actions from the past. Ram Dass found that the best cure for these moments of anxiety is to reset yourself. As he wrote in his iconic work Be Here Now:
Ask yourself: Where am I?
Ask yourself: What time is it?
Say it until you can hear it.
We control so very little of our lives that it is astounding any of us make it through any given day without total catastrophe befalling us. We are infinitesimally tiny creatures on a small blue ball suspended in infinite space that is constantly expanding. There may be life beyond our planet, but it doesn’t matter because most of us don’t even know our neighbors. We are painfully alone in almost every way you can measure such a thing, and yet our spirits endure immeasurable hardship because that is what humans have always done. The only moments of relief we get are when we gather and connect through whatever means are available to us. In those moments, we are fully alive in the present, and that is where I want you to exist.
We are sons and daughters
We are flesh and dust
We are pulled from the wreckage
We are not alone
We are lovers broken
We are vicarious dreams
We are tumbling in space out of control
Into the mystery
Into the mystery
If you feel alone right now, please know that I, too, will follow you into the mystery. Who knows? It may be the adventure of a lifetime.