Thursday, September 22, 2016

On Drive and Contentment in Hamilton and My Life

I first listened to the musical Hamilton just after my friend Mel Leilani Larson got back from a trip to New York raving about the show, when she told us the soundtrack would be streamed free on NPR for a while in advance of its official release. My huge respect for Mel's judgment was tempered only by my considerable inertia: I pulled up a tab but didn't actually start listening until about midnight, and even then only because Nicole had a lot of papers to grade and happened to be doing so in bed.

It took about a phrase for me to be hooked for the night and about three songs to be hooked forever. I loved the drama and the wit of the show, loved the way its musical references helped bring the real culture of the late-1700s to life for a listener, loved the characters and the way they duel each other verbally and literally--but what grabbed me most was what I suppose you might call the fundamental forces competing in Hamilton.

Hamilton is about a lot of things, of course, but there's a side of the show, which was the first layer I clung to, that's about wanting really badly--relentlessly, obsessively, all-consumingly--to be engaged in the world and leave your mark there. I was already starting to get sick, though we didn't know why, when I first fell in love with the Hamilton soundtrack. But despite the creeping symtpoms, I was still writing long hours on work projects and side projects. Enough that the Hamilton lyric "why do you write like you're running out of time?" was like a mantra to me. In the show, I saw my own obsession with forging something powerful and beautiful, my own willingness to push others to push beyond the norm toward that vision--"I'm never satisfied," I reminded two co-writers (and fellow Hamilton-heads) when asked for my opinion during one editing meeting, "I have never been satisfied." I wrote like I was fighting, and I fought for the writing, and I exulted not only in moments of success but also over being locked in the struggle. I was sick, and I didn't know why, but I kept pushing, I kept working and wanting to work--though I wasn't getting better and doctors kept pushing further afield for explanations--until keeping sanity, family, and writing all intact started to seem like maybe more than I could keep up with.

It was while all this was happening that I found what, to me, is the other fundamental force in Hamilton. It happened sort of by accident...I'd read an essay that talked about what values the antagonists, Burr and Hamilton, represent and I thought, "That not right. Structurally, Burr is not the antagonist." Which was my old script analysis class talking, telling me that just because someone shows up early or makes bad choices doesn't make them the antagonist unless they also sew the seeds of the conflict that gets resolved in the end.

I don't think I'm going out on a limb among Hamilton fans to say that the character of Hamilton is never really tempted by Burr's wait-for-it philosophy and that  the end is certainly not about a willingness to be vulnerably outspoken versus a desire to keep yourself safe and show your cards only at the right time. No: the end is not about Burr at all, though he is one of many who helps get us there on a plot level. The end is about Hamilton and Eliza.

It feels a bit weird, there, putting his last name and her first--but that's actually the point. The first force is the force of the last name and the second force, Eliza's force, is about the significance of the first name. All through the musical, Hamilton is pushing to do good work through a public persona, a last name level of identity. And from the prologue on, it's Eliza's voice that keep calling him back, constantly reminding him that he is also Alexander. He has a home role to fill: time to spend, attention to be paid, and no matter how he wants to speed up and fight for a legacy, Eliza seems to appear in warning to invite him to slow down, to be content with the essential.

For me, the show is most fundamentally about the tension between moving/fighting on the one hand and learning to stand somewhere small and specific on the other.

A lot of interviewers asked Lin Manuel Miranda about the political dynamics of an immigrant upbringing and the influence they had on him, basically questions about the public place of immigrants in America. I hope somebody also asked him--even if they decided not to go on record and print it--what the family dynamics were for his dad and other immigrant dads he saw. Did they have the immigrant hunger and sense of struggle so many first generation people have, the hunger Hamilton embodies? And how did that effect their families for good and ill? What did Lin and his mom and the other kids he knew think about their dads' drive? I've certainly known families where the immigrant dads' relentless need to carve out a space in a new country felt a bit out of control.

And in the musical, Miranda seems to side--ultimately--with Eliza, seems to see Hamilton as fundamentally endangered by his inability to stop being Hamilton at times and be Alexander. Looking back, it was ironic for me to identify so much with the drive in Hamilton's life that destroys him without thinking much, initially, about the neglected place of love and belonging that seems most to anchor and redeem him. But then, like I said, I got sick. And I stayed sick. And I stopped writing like I was running out of time and started trying--despite all the pressure on my patience, despite the low energy and the distracting symptoms--to love like that is the purpose of time.

And for almost a year now, I've learned to be away (more or less) from the world. I mean, I still follow news and Mormon discussions and literary conversations a bit, and I watch weather I won't experience except through my hospital window, but none of it has much claim on me. I am not too much Goldberg the writer and social commentator; I'm mostly just James in the Goldberg family and James among some friends. A year ago I was taking pride in never being satisfied--now I work on being content with whatever I have, on being open to the moments of grace and connection that come with it, and I take precious little thought for the troubles of tomorrow, being well aware (as Jesus said) that every day has evil enough unto itself.

I loved Hamilton's side of Hamilton. I'm living Eliza's now--and, of course, she is right.

And yet...

Last night I was taking one of my many walks around the hospital floor, listening to Act Two of Hamilton as I went. I got to the song "The Room Where It Happens," where Hamilton, without hesitation or apology, trades away New York City's status as the national capital in exchange for the votes that will finally give him the financial system he is sure the country needs. Hamilton is still running high on the achievement when Burr comes in to ask him why he was willing to "sell New York City down the river." And in his explanation of how he just got exactly what he wanted, Hamilton gets a bit reflective about what's driven him through the Revolution and through all the hazards and compromises of government. "God help and forgive me," he sings, "I want to build something that's gonna outlive me."

When I heard that line last night, I felt it all through me. I am planning on living, but have also tried to prepare myself today. I am looking forward, to be sure, to the end of treatment, but have also tried to live as if it will go and on far past my expectations. I have tried to be content living in a land between the normal world of the living and the world of the dead.

But that line. God help and forgive me. I want to build something that's gonna outlive me. 

More than I have in months, I wanted to get back to the world. To my fight to change something for good there, to leave a mark. The old hunger awoke: the old restlessness, relentlessness--and I quickened my step, pulling a pole full of intravenous medications behind, as if I could break out into the world faster by walking. As if I could choose my fate by sheer force of will.

God help and forgive me. 

It is not a simple thing to wish so badly for two things that can seem so contradictory. But I suspect God will help and forgive my ambition. I suspect that wish to break out of these walls is a gift from God, just as my wish to find contentment within them is. And maybe my life is preparing me to carry both gifts acceptably. I've known relentless drive; I've known how discontent with things as they are can help you call new things to life. And I've learned stillness and attention; I've learned to be content with the world as grace can help you see it. Maybe this is what the Sikh gurus could see when they called on their people to be soldiers and saints: they wanted them to have the capacity and will to move together for justice and goodness when history demanded it, and at the same time they wanted them to be able to experience the blessings of simple, honest life, aware of but unencumbered by the struggles that always seem to sweep the world.

And maybe I, grandson of a Sikh, can learn to be at once a soldier and a saint, at once the exacting Goldberg and the patient James.


  1. James, I loved reading this as I have felt the same struggle. I was just asking someone how you balance ambition and contentment. Thank you for taking the time and energy to share your thoughts. A "mark" you have left is your kindness to me as a student and as an acquaintance. Your in our prayers.

  2. This is so eloquently said! You have captured the conflict beautifully. Not many people have this kind of insight into themselves. I think God will both "help and forgive," because He gave you both components. This essay is a rue help to me as I face my own desire to live a simple, smaller life. Thank you, and we're praying for you.

  3. That was meant to be "true" not "rue"!

  4. Very nicely done. I know that pull as well. We can't all battle in the public realm all of the time. But must have seasons. Good luck with yours!!!

  5. James. Friend of mine and [secondary] namesake of my firstborn. I feel very thoughtful today (I just finished reviewing my patriarchal blessing and that always makes me more thoughtful than usual). Thank you for writing. For writing. Your words ignite fire, they have a life of their own that is so powerful, that makes me want to shout, "can everybody see this?!!" Your legacy is one that will certainly always live on in my life and in my children's lives as I share your words with them. I want to read them over and over. I suppose this is how some people gain followings. They have a fire in their bones.

  6. I feel that drive too. It can feel pretty thankless, and there are times when I look at myself and say, "Why do I have this pushing at me?" and yet I must follow it because it would drive me crazy otherwise. It is a sense of work to be done, work that you have to do, which won't get done if you don't do it.



Related Posts with Thumbnails