The Emotion that Defines You

I’ve mentioned before how I’ll listen to the same song or band, over and over, while I’m writing a particular novel. It helps me tap into the defining emotion of that particular character.

I’ve always known there were certain songs that reminded me of other people. For example, when I listen to “These Are the Days” by Busy Signal, I’ll always think of one of our friends who died suddenly last summer of a heart-attack. He was only 32, so his death was completely unexpected. He left a twelve-year-old son and an ex-wife, who is one of Chris’s best friends. She told us that when she drives I. to school, he always wants to listen to “These Are the Days” because that’s what his dad used to listen to. It’s a song that expresses the anger of someone watching society disintegrating for years, or maybe the anger of somebody who has recently gone through a divorce, the kind of anger one feels when hurting badly: “Yea these are the fuckin things that make a fuckin DJ wanna fuckin sing…..”

But until early Sunday morning, I’ve never really thought about which songs evoke the emotion that defines me.

I was in Chicago all week and flew back home on Saturday, arriving around midnight. I drove into the city to join Chris at Club 6, which was offering live reggae until 4 a.m. We danced for awhile, then headed home. As we drove, we heard  Barrington Levy’s “Vice-Versa Love,” a song that can best be described as plaintive. We’ve heard Barrington Levy sing this in person and it is, yes, his best song–there’s something in it that calls out to something deep within us. “There’s too many hopeless souls and ragamuffin souljahs, what we need is love and what we need…”

“Why do we love songs with this deep sense of unfulfilled longing?” I asked.

“It’s that emotion, that desire to live, that we’re born with,” Chris said.

“Do you think it’s a religious feeling?” I asked. Growing up in Christian families, we were both taught that there was a “god-shaped hole” in every human being, which could only be filled by having a relationship with God. I never felt that was a helpful analogy but still wondered if Chris was going there. No, that’s not what he meant.

“We’re so needy when we’re born,”  he said. “We have this need for love that’s either fulfilled or not fulfilled…But we’re born with it,  and we’re always reminded of it when we hear songs like this.”

“Do you think this is how babies feel, plaintive like this?” I asked. I could believe it in that moment as we listened to “Vice-Versa Love,” that this was precisely how babies feel–an utter sense of longing to be loved.

Then we started talking about which emotions we seek, and how that’s reflected in the songs that we listen to. Chris admitted that defiance is the  emotion that calls out to him, the one he connects to most. And that’s probably why reggae is his heart and soul, because the heart and soul of reggae is defiance against injustice in society.

“What’s the defining emotion of my life?” I asked.

He didn’t hestitate. “Angst,” he said.

I recognized the truth in that statement immediately, but I didn’t *want* it to be true. “You really think so?” I asked. “Really? Angst?”

“It’s what drives you,” he said.

It’s true. If I didn’t feel that sense of angst–or, perhaps, anguish–I wouldn’t work so damn hard all the time. I don’t know if it’s possible to change this about myself, to choose a different defining emotion. But if I’m honest with myself,  I have to admit that even if the Lord of the Universe offered to pluck that emotion from me and replace it with something else, I’d say no. I’d probably be happier. But it’s been my nearest and dearest emotion all my life. It’s what keeps me working, it’s what keeps me producing art. I’d feel bereft without it.

Comments 2

  1. terena

    wow. beautiful post. And I’d have to say my defining emotion is close to angst as well. There’s this constant need to know and understand and year for… what? A hunger that doesn’t let me rest for a moment. Maybe a lot of artists feel that way?

  2. Jess

    I suspect so….It’s probably what keeps us producing art, what makes us susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse, what keeps us unsteady in relationships. Of course, I recently read an essay in Poets & Writers that said the “new” writer isn’t that unstable, but is the buckle-down nerdy type, and that may be true–but I think the yearning, the hunger, for something that we can never reach and never fulfill does make us less than stable folks to be around. Thank God there are people who love us anyway.

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