In the pursuit of the intellectual life, we sometimes push ourselves to a point of feeling stuck or burnt out and our mind falls into a state of sorrow. We get so fixated on trying to re-acquire the pleasure we once felt in the pursuit of this higher good that we neglect to see lower goods that are present to us. We get frustrated and we begin to pity ourselves for not feeling the enchantment of the intellectual life that we remember having once enjoyed. Such thoughts lead to anxiety, “which weighs on the mind, so as to make escape seem impossible” (Summa, I-II, Q. 35, A. 8). If we let this anxiety overwhelm and burden us too much, it could even lead to a state of “torpor,” which deprives one of the ability to move or speak (Summa, I-II, Q. 35, A. 8). To make a habit of such sorrowfulness to the point that we neglect to even begin doing good is to fall into the perennial vice of acedia, where we no longer have the desire to seek or do good because it’s lost it’s lure and charm.
Some of us have been wondering about how to use the lower goods appropriately, without it merely being a copout or an escape from the hard work of pursuing the higher goods. As I was driving home one afternoon, considering this question and other wandering thoughts in the back of my mind, I turned on the music of The Dirty Guv’nahs.
Why did I do this? Maybe because it was a beautiful day, the windows were down, and I wanted my feelings to align more with the beauty of the world around me. In my experience, their music is joyful and upbeat and I wanted to feel joyful and upbeat about my life. Was I trying to distract myself from my thoughts? Was I choosing to satisfy my desire for a lower good rather than enjoy the contemplation of truth? Could I have chosen an equally appropriate but higher form of music such as Vivaldi’s “Spring” or Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”? Was I indulging my passions a bit? Probably yes to all of the above. But then, as I was listening to and enjoying the song, “Backbeat Melody,” I realized that this song expressed exactly what my thoughts had been circling around. In fact, the lyrical and musical logic of this song followed the same arguments of Saint Thomas Aquinas on the question of how to remedy sorrow.
To begin to answer the question of how to use lower goods appropriately, in a way that re-ignites one’s desire for goodness rather than merely indulging lower passions as a distraction from anxiety, let me offer the music of The Dirty Guv’nahs. More particularly, let me glorify the lowly goodness of the song, “Backbeat Melody” (See the music video here). This low good, and many like it, works as a natural remedy to the sorrow of acedia and can re-ignite our desire for good.
Acedia is an aspect of sloth, which is sorrow about spiritual good (Summa, II-II, Q. 35, A. 1). Saint Thomas says that all sorrow “consists in a certain flight of the appetite” (Summa, I-II, Q. 35, A. 8). In other words, we lose our desire for the good thing and so it pains us rather than pleases us. The sorrow of anxiety involves a loss of the desire for the intellectual life. When we lose our thirst for knowledge, we can “get lost in the moment, spinning in [our] mind[s]” (“Backbeat Melody,” verse 3), trying to get that feeling of longing back and being frustrated with ourselves for not enjoying the thing that we know is good. Instead of wallowing in that sorrow, sometimes it is better to choose to glorify and give thanks to God by enjoying a created good that He has given us.
So much of The Dirty Guv’nahs’ music is all about celebrating life and its beauty, which is itself a way of glorifying and giving thanks to God for His created goods. Thus, listening to their music and allowing myself to be moved by it served to restore my desire for good and so abolish the sorrowfulness of acedia. Further, by having my desire restored by the pleasure of the music, I was also better disposed to understand the truth communicated in their song. “Backbeat Melody” is all about leaning on your friends – the greatest of the material goods – when you fall into a state of sorrow. The artist is acknowledging the great gift of good friends: “They give me reason to live, / Hope round the bend” (“Backbeat Melody,” verse 1). Further, he is asking for his friends to be the good presence that relieves him in a state of sorrow: “I’m looking for a friend who will never leave. / Yeah, would you be my backbeat melody, / When the rhythm is gone?” (“Backbeat Melody,” Chorus). In a poetic allusion to the way that melodies in music work, the artist expresses the truth that Saint Thomas also communicates about the sympathy of friends being a remedy for sorrow (Summa, I-II, Q, 38, A. 3).
But how did the artist come to this realization to seek consolation from his friends? It started by looking out of himself at the wonders of creation: “But when I’m out in the dark, everything stops / And one million stars remind me that I’m not in control / And my soul needs you next to me” (“Backbeat Melody,” verse 3). When we get stuck and burdened by the weight of anxiety in our minds, we have to get out of our heads and be present to the created world around us. When we are sorrowful, we have lost that pleasure of longing that is born in wonder. Wonder begins in an experience of our senses, an experience of receiving God’s love through His material creation. The rhythm of nature is the backbeat melody of the cosmos that we can fall back on when our mind loses its appetite for ideas. Indeed, sometimes its better to pursue the object of our lower bodily appetites instead of the higher goods in order to re-inspire a state of gratitude and desire for God.
The experience of listening to the music of The Dirty Guv’nahs revealed this truth in a new light. The song “Backbeat Melody” reminded me of the principle that “the highest cannot stand with the lowest” (C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves). We are lowly creatures who need to experience the goodness of low goods. And in being filled with the goodness of those low goods, we restore our appetite for goodness as such, thus abolishing the sorrowfulness of acedia.
So, when faced with the option to choose between various goods, is it sometimes better to choose an objectively lower good over a higher one? Yes, so long as the lower good helps you to better love God. Recall that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The problem is that the heart is fickle. We grow anxious in our minds because our heart loses its desire for intellectual goods. At this point, instead of dismissing our hearts and wallowing in self-pity over our weakness, we can also devote our soul, mind and strength to loving God where our heart is. We can rely on the backbeat melody of tangible created goods to restore our desire for good. So long as we recognize the low good as a gift from God, it can be used for spiritual good as well.
When you feel yourself slipping into that anxiety and growing sad about the intellectual life, don’t be afraid to fall back on the backbeat melody of lower created goods as a way to restore your longing for God. Go for a walk with a friend. Have a beer with your buddies. Eat a meal with your family. Play a game with your toddler. Do something fun with your spouse. Be present to the tangible goods around you, and let your heart be moved to fall in love again when your mind is too heavy to think.