“I Saw You Suffering”

Am I the only one who has kind of a morbid fascination with suicide? Well, with not the act of suicide itself, but the mindset of someone who would make this kind of drastic and irreversible choice; the factors and environment and thought processes leading someone to no longer want to exist on the planet anymore. In college I did a lot of research on suicide in literature. And whenever there are public suicides reported in the news, I haven’t been able to resist being drawn in.

Last week was another case of a well-known and successful person choosing suicide: 52-year-old Chris Cornell, best known for fronting the rock groups Soundgarden and Audioslave. I’ve immersed myself in his music for days, ever since I first heard about him taking his life by hanging. I recognize in him the soul of a poet–a deep thinker, a deep feeler.

“Choosing suicide” has been called into question by Cornell’s widow, Vicky, whom he called his “soulmate.” She insists that he never would have intentionally committed suicide, and that he wasn’t himself that night after taking too many prescription anxiety pills, which the shy loner needed in order to perform in front of large crowds. If that really was the case, it adds another heartbreaking dimension to this tragedy, and goes to show to extent to which drugs, even legal and prescription, can alter one’s mind and personality. But that’s a topic for another time.

It’s common for people to look for suicide messages in everything the victim had said or done before the death, or in this case wrote and sung about. I certainly saw some things in his music that can be read that way, such as this portion of “Worried Moon:”

Yeah if it all goes wrong
And I’m a heart without a home
Maybe you can talk me out
Of doing myself in

But since we all have our moments of depression, heartbreak, and despair, I decided to look for other kinds of messages he may have been trying to convey. Because he produced dozens of albums and hundreds of songs with four different groups, I’ve decided to limit myself to just his most recent solo work: Higher Truth. (Just the album name itself conveys importance and meaning.)

To start, enjoy the lyrics to his song “Misery Chain:”

Won’t you take one link, from this misery chain?
Keep it to remind you of a long-forgotten time or a place,
So that you recognize its shape, when it’s near,
Any time or place this misery chain should appear.

Take the locks and shackles, and melt all of it down.
Shine a light upon every shadow, every acre of ground.
The hidden corners on it all around,
Any way you feel this misery chain should be found.

When we’re gone, and it’s all said and done,
What will we leave?
Stories told, will they speak of us, when God only knows
What those words will be.

And if I should fall, from the top of the world
To the depths below, so far below where our belief could exist,
Down further still will be the one who hides the key.
And there to try to put these misery chains on me.

Won’t you take one link, from this misery chain.
Keep it to remind you, of a long-forgotten time or a place.
So that you recognize it, ’till it’s understood
That every trace of this misery chain is gone for good.
‘Til every trace of this misery chain is gone for good.

There’s a lot of meaning here, but what I took was that we need to hold on to just a small piece of the painful experiences in our lives. Not enough to cause us to relive the pain over and over again, but to be a reminder of it, so that we can learn from it and avoid going through something like that again. This allows us to “shine a light upon every shadow” and see things as they really are. We don’t want to hold on to the whole chain, because it’s too heavy and would enslave us in misery, but just one little link of that chain, in order to be equipped to rid ourselves of any future misery chains.

I also love the idea in the chorus of this song: “When we’re gone, and it’s all said and done, What will we leave?” It’s so empowering to think about the mark we’re making on the world because most of us are typically more focused on the daily trivialities of life. But we must all depart eventually, so hopefully by that time, we leave the world better off for us having lived. Also, it’s only God who knows the full story of our lives. We may think we know enough of certain people to speak of them and tell their stories, but our view is limited.

Here’s a portion of another song along similar lines: “Before We Disappear:”

Time ain’t nothing if it ain’t fast,
Taking everything that you ever had,
And giving nothing in return
But a cold bed in a quiet earth.
If there’s a door to every cell
A pearl inside of every shell then
How hard can it be
To share your love with me?
How hard can it be
To rise with me each morning?
I know that it feels like
We will live forever,
But I fear
That time will hide the years.
Life ain’t nothing if it ain’t hard,

It’ll show you who you truly are,
Knock you down when you get too tall
Till you’re spun around in a free fall.

But somewhere out there past the storm
Lies the shelter of your heart.

I know that it feels like
We will live forever,
But I fear
That time can hide the years
Like we were never here,
So hold on tightly my dear
Before we disappear.

He was clearly thinking a lot about his mortality and the short time we have to be alive. There’s a sense of urgency in the title “before we disappear.” Sometimes we lose touch with just how temporary our mortal existence is, and we waste time because “it feels like we will live forever.” But this song speaks to me of the importance and necessity of our relationships. Are we letting time steal the years we have, “like we were never here,” or are we making the effort to truly love each other?
This life is far from easy. In fact, it’s meant to be hard, to “show you who you truly are,” and to keep us humble. If it were easy, we’d gain nothing from it. It’s such a blessing that through it all, our loved ones can give us much-needed shelter from the storm.
Along similar lines to these songs is the chorus to “Our Time in the Universe:”
Save the dying arms of midnight
For the patience of the lapse of light
Cuz it’s our time in the universe
Well I don’t mind
If we’re blessed or cursed
And it’s our time in the universe
Yours and mine
Just being here and alive is something to be celebrated. At times we may consider ourselves either “blessed or cursed,” but that’s only a matter of perspective. Our existence here must eventually come to an end, so seize the day! As another lyric in this song goes: “So don’t worry on what tomorrow holds for you,” but live in the present moment.
The lyrics that resonate with me the most come from these selections of “Through The Window:”

I saw you suffering
Through a foggy window in the rain
When you thought no one was watching,
Going through your memories
Like so many prisons to escape
And become someone else,
With another face
And another name
No more suffering…
I saw you suffering
Through the cracked and dirty window pane
I was ashamed that I was watching,
Going through your imagination
Looking for a life you could create
And become somebody else,
With another face
With another name
No more suffering

…spit the ashes from our mouths
And put the grey back in the clouds
And send them packing with our bags
Of old regrets and sorrows
‘Cause they don’t do a thing but drag us down
So far down
The past is like a braided rope
Each moment tightly coiled inside

I saw you suffering
Through the yellow window of a train
With everybody watching,
Too tired for imagining
That you could ever love somebody else
From somewhere far away
From another time
And another place
With another life
And another face
And another name
No more suffering.

So many around us are suffering. Do we see them, through those foggy, cracked, dirty, or yellowed windows? They may think that no one’s watching. Do they know that you are there for them? Or are you too ashamed that you were watching them in their pain? Our culture teaches us to value independence above all, so we hide our pain and struggle from others, and assume that they want to hide their pain and struggle from us. When someone is “caught” looking, it can seem like a humiliating thing, for both parties. But is it really? There’s something so vulnerable about seeing through those windows into the pain of another. Anything vulnerable can seem scary, because our culture teaches us that in order to be strong and safe, we must keep our shields and defenses up. But is this really so? What if true strength is found in being ourselves and connecting with one other’s hearts?
What causes our suffering? It almost always results from being removed from the present moment. You may be stuck in the past, “Going through your memories, Like so many prisons to escape.” Or you may be living in the future, “Going through your imagination, Looking for a life you could create.” Either way, you will suffer. Memories and imagination serve important purposes, but they’re abstractions, and when we spend too long there, we become removed from what’s real and productive: right now. Anytime we want to be something other than we are, in another place than that which we’re in, or yearn to have another life or place or name, we are going to suffer.

I love the idea of sending “old regrets and sorrows” packing. Other than the little bit of the “misery chain” that is constructive to hold on to, these regrets and sorrows “don’t do a thing but drag us down.” The braided rope of the past, containing each moment that has gone before, is a heavy thing to drag around. When we can let it go–relinquish, move on, surrender, forgive–that’s when there will be “no more suffering.”
Since I’m currently reading the book Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, I can’t help but read into this song a perspective of seeing ourselves suffering. Even if no one else can see through those windows, we can see it in ourselves. We can comfort and soothe our own pain. When we can do this, everything becomes so much clearer and we’re equipped meet our own needs so that we can let go of that “braided rope” of the past that’s dragging us down. And once we’ve seen our own suffering, we will see so much clearer in order to be aware of it in others. Sometimes just knowing that we’re seen is all we need.
Although it’s so tragic that Chris Cornell is no longer among the living, I’m grateful for the impact his music has had on my life. I fully consider this recent delving into his Higher Truth album to have been a mentoring experience, and I hope that you have found some gold nuggets here as well!

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