It would be fair to say that I am not the world’s biggest opera lover, but maybe that’s the advantage I had last Saturday over some of the true opera lovers who were at The Washington Opera’s production of Appomattox by Philip Glass. True, at intermission I wondered aloud if it would have been so hard for Glass to have written at least a little bit of melodic line, but by the end of the three hours I was convinced that all of the work’s elements – singing, orchestra, libretto, set, acting, combined with the current events we are living out in our country – came together to create an experience far more expansive than just opera. In fact, I came to believe that something as ordinary as tunefulness wouldn’t have served the already melodic rhetoric of Martin Luther King any better than the profanity of Lyndon Baines Johnson (and there was plenty of LBJ’s profanity in the libretto). The music was in service to the whole, simply adding another dimension to the emotional connection Glass must have hoped we would make with a story that deals with the ugliness of racism in two different centuries, and the pragmatism in 1865 and 1965 that tried (even largely succeeding we could say) to move an unwilling American culture forward.
It’s Thanksgiving Day in 2015. One hundred and fifty years after the negotiations of Generals Lee and Grant to end a civil war without humiliating those defeated in war. Fifty years beyond the work of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. I don’t think anyone today is pretending that any of this work to end division and racism is done. Where do we find room in our hearts then for gratitude when we see so much hate around us? We know the answer, I think. It begins with the small things that are huge in our lives – family, friends, homes, enough to eat, meaningful work. And then it moves on to the story-telling that helps us to understand all sides of our personal and collective histories. It continues with openness to the emotional connections that come through words or actions or music, or even at the opera when all of those things merge. Finally, it includes the ability to move beyond our fears and prejudices and experience the whole fabric of life, knowing that we have a simple choice between feeling hatred, indifference, or gratitude.
If story-telling, whether in opera or around the Thanksgiving table, seems like a strange step on the road to gratitude, take the time to listen to this TED talk today and then see if you don’t agree that story-telling is actually an essential step towards gratitude. And that gratitude is an essential step on the way towards a more peaceful world.