Let yourself be overcome.

Updated: Sep 4, 2018


Let yourself be overcome with the best things in in life — and always be on the lookout for them. You’ll never be sad for long, because the best things in life are absolutely everywhere, if only you have eyes to see.

Just a moment ago, I was taken off-guard by something so beautiful that it forced tears of gratitude against my will. I tried to resist, but resistance was futile.

It was a video of Sarah Vaughan singing “Misty” live in Sweden in 1964. She walks onto the stage, and immediately apologizes for being nervous. Then she apologizes in advance for what she seems to think will be a horrible performance. She says she has a cold.

Then she further apologizes for not being able to speak the local language. The audience follows this third preemptive apology with a tepid round of applause, I suppose because they are worried for her but barely understand what she is saying.

Sweat runs down her face. Her hair-do looks like it came out of a box. All in all, she comes across as though she has never done this before. Even though her talents have taken her around the world, her humility is painfully sincere.

It gets awkward enough that you begin to wonder whether or not she can pull it off. Then, just as you begin to feel truly sorry for the poor woman standing on the big stage, she suddenly sings.

This is the part that takes me completely off-guard. It feels like she just pulled a rabbit out of an empty hat. She sings, “Look at me. I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree…” and all I hear is this effortless, sonorous voice of the universe. It’s too much, and the next thing I know, my cheeks are wet.

• It doesn’t have to be Sarah Vaughan. It can be anything if you know how to look and listen.

Walt Whitman knew how. He wrote an entire book of poetry called “Leaves of Grass” wherein he takes intimate notice of the immense beauty in things that most of us, most of the time, regard as commonplace. Take this section, for example:

The sprawl and fulness of babes, the bosoms and heads of women, the folds of their dress, their style as we pass in the street, the contour of their shape downwards,

The swimmer naked in the swimming-bath, seen as he swims through the transparent green-shine, or lies with his face up and rolls silently to and fro in the heave of the water,

The bending forward and backward of rowers in row-boats, the horseman in his saddle,

Girls, mothers, house-keepers, in all their performances,

The group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner-kettles, and their wives waiting,

The female soothing a child, the farmer’s daughter in the garden or cow-yard,

The young fellow hoeing corn, the sleigh-driver driving his six horses through the crowd,

The wrestle of wrestlers, two apprentice-boys, quite grown, lusty, good-natured, native-born, out on the vacant lot at sun-down after work,

The coats and caps thrown down, the embrace of love and resistance,

The upper-hold and under-hold, the hair rumpled over and blinding the eyes;

The march of firemen in their own costumes, the play of masculine muscle through clean-setting trowsers and waist-straps,

The slow return from the fire, the pause when the bell strikes suddenly again, and the listening on the alert,

The natural, perfect, varied attitudes, the bent head, the curv’d neck and the counting;

Such-like I love—I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother’s breast with the little child,

Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with wrestlers, march in line with the firemen, and pause, listen, count.

He goes on like this for pages and pages. The beauty in this poem is not so much in the words as in the mere listing of things we usually ignore. Think of it this way: If you had never seen a blade of grass before (or anything like it), and you were suddenly introduced to one — if someone showed you the thing in great detail, and even somehow showed you its microscopic machinery in all of its delicate complexity — wouldn’t you be totally transfixed? People pay money to enter museums and stare at manmade works of art that are crude in comparison to the full reality of everything they pass on the way in. Ask any botanist or biologist. Ask any physicist. Sarah Vaughan’s voice was a force of nature, just like the miracle of photosynthesis. She was no more responsible for her voice than she was for her height. Like all of us, she was merely a recipient.  

So, here is some good advice for tough days : Receive every beautiful thing life offers you. Receive it right now, and receive it with voracious gratitude. “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” — Matthew 13:16

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