In 1986 I moved from the U.S. to South Africa with my family. I eventually grew to love South Africa and thought of it as my home. But America always had a kind of mystical quality about it. America represented the good life. America was a place where everyone succeeded. America was where you could do anything you wanted to do and you could have anything you wanted to have. Everything was good in America.
In 2008 I moved back to the States to live. I chose to settle in Nashville, TN without really knowing much about the place. The first few years were both difficult and full of wide eyed wonder for me. They were full of new experiences, and new people. Although I was 31 when I moved, I think of myself during that time as a freshman in college. I was naive and dumb and full of inexplicable hope.
When my hopes remained unrealized I grew bitter and felt that America had let me down.
It’s been a decade since then and what I used to see as a grey, ugly city, has begun to feel like home, and has begun to show it’s colors. What I used to think of as “hard times” I now see simply as life. Things that used to seem broken now seem like blessings.
The chorus of “That American Life” says:
“Somebody get me some water, so I can take a bite of this whine.
Somebody paint this paradise with a little bit more sunshine.
Somebody fry me some bacon. Let’s eat it with some apple pie.
Somebody cut me a slice of that American life.”
It’s not a very glamorous self-portrait but I think it describes my former attitude fairly accurately. “Hey my throat is a little dry from all the complaining. Could you get me some water so I can can really tell you about my troubles? While you’re at it, this sub-tropical beach we’re on is a little sandy for my tastes. Can we have something done about that? The sun isn’t shining quite the way I prefer it. I’m hungry bro, but this food in front of me, while perfectly fine and capable of nourishing me, isn’t the tastiest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. Let’s find something better. Let’s find the most amazing food we can think of and eat it all at the same time. Bro, I am tired of not being the wealthiest bro around. There’s people doing better than me and I think I want some of what they have.”
It’s hard to understand loneliness until you have been lonely. It’s hard to understand love unless you have been loved. If you have been both lonely and loved, you understand both of those conditions better than you would having only experienced one of them. You don’t really know good coffee until you’ve forced down a mug of stale gas station brew. You don’t really know wealth until you’ve experienced poverty.
I didn’t write this song to address inequality. I wrote it as a way of acknowledging that things are never as bad as they may seem. In fact a lot of what feels like difficulty ends up being a path to strength. A lot of what feels like poverty becomes a path to wealth. It’s easy to look back and see the good in situations that didn’t feel good at the time. We all do that. I wrote this to encourage myself to pull those experiences into the present. To remember to highlight the good NOW.
But it’s worth saying that in the current climate of inequality of race and sex, those of us who have known wealth and privilege should search our experience for those moments when things seemed difficult and no-one understood. We should look to the lonely times and the times when we were unloved and the times when we wanted more than we had, not so that we can wallow in our miseries, but because it might breed in us a small measure of compassion. If we can remember what it felt like to be unheard we might be more prone to listen. If we can remember what it felt like to be lonely we might be more prone to reach out. If we can remember what it felt like when we didn’t know how we would get the rent paid, in spite of our best efforts, we might be more willing to help those who need it.