Reflections on faith and art – Earworms of Grace: Leitmotiv

Like everyone else, I love Fridays. tgifIt was Friday. Friday is my day off. It also happens to be my Sabbath. I’m rather possessive of Fridays since they have become so reconstructive to my psyche, such as it is. Yet, ironically, if there is ever a day I feel more stressed about “wasting” free time, it’s Friday.

I have a fixation with fixations: an idea, a besetting issue, relational matters, missing car keys or, God forbid, a misplaced book bag. Whenever an idea, either good or bad, finds a perpetual return, I can get stuck in what the French call an idée fixe, a fixed idea. It’s something that, good or bad, refuses to go away; a kind of paralysis.


My brain and my soul spar over time served, with neither winning. I should be working harder at not doing something significantly insignificant. It’s a bit like standing in front of a wet paint sign and sensing an overpowering need to touch something, just to be sure. “Don’t think about sex,” the deacon tells the unsuspecting youth group and, for the next half hour, boys have a dreamy look in their eyes with one eyelid partially closed and crossing their legs. Ha! As if they’re fooling anyone.

I love to practice silence and contemplative prayer on these days and deal with distractions about the same as anyone else – poorly. But of all the distractions with which I’d prefer not to do battle during contemplative prayer, some trite, facile, mind-numbingly repetitive song would top the list. It just keeps showing up no matter how hard I try to redirect or quell the noise. You know that thing where, at sixteen, you finally get a chance to lean in for the long awaited kiss but start laughing instead because of the impressive fart joke your jackass buddy told you earlier that day? It just keeps showing up at the worst moments. Or, when you’re trying to find the Zen of vacuuming the stairs but the only thing that incessantly hammers away at your brain is that ditty from the ghastly used car commercial that sounds like it was written by angry zombies on a bad acid high.

I’ve heard this phenomenon described as an earworm. earwormI have no idea who first coined the phrase but it is very appropriate to my point. Sometimes my mental needle gets stuck and can’t move on (for those younger than I, that is a reference to ancient, black discs that magically play music when rotated clockwise and scratched by a needle on a stick). Such earworm annoyances can make a sorry mess of what might otherwise have been a nice day.

But maybe that recurring ditty from the horrible TV ad, vis a vis, idea-fly constantly buzzing around inside my head isn’t half bad. Even if it is a universal experience, I have to wonder whether it can somehow be redeemed, retooled from a shitty tune to some richer fare, something even…redemptive. Perhaps it’s possible to redirect such things and, in so doing, make for better internal music.

The Germans, not to be outdone, have a term, delightfully fun to say, referring to a short, constantly recurring musical phrase: the leitmotiv. It means literally, “leading motif” and is conceived as a guiding idea around which larger pieces of music revolve. This idea may be a short melodic phrase, harmonic statement or rhythmic figure that hides and flits about within a larger work. It morphs and changes according to musical or plot needs. Sometimes new ones are added, granting even more interest and mystery to the piece. Leitmotifs can help to bind a work together into a coherent whole, and also enable the composer to relate a story without the use of words, or to add an extra level to an already present story.

Think old movies. The piano accompaniment was used to enhance action, delineate one character from another, create atmosphere or just build a fun backdrop against which the characters could capably caper. Still closer to home, the Star Wars Theme continually reappears throughout an entire series of movies that, in its subtly changing demeanor, evokes equally subtle changes in characters, moods, settings, relationships.

Back to Fridays. I am coming, albeit slowly, to accept and even embrace these Sabbath earworms, these recurring dramas that play out in my overactive brain. Jesus said such cool stuff like “people were not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath for people” (Rife Armchair Translation). This tells me a lot. It tells me a lot about Jesus and the kind of person he was and is. This is a statement primarily about grace. It is an indication of the kind of gift-giving God I seek to serve. The gift of Sabbath suggests that no amount of bad earworm ditties need steal what is always pure gift. To relax into guilt free nothingness is the best non-thing ever on a non-day to non-do.

sleep in hammockThese days, I love to try and fool these earworm triggers by writing long to-do lists, placing them on my lap during prayer and then crumpling them up while I go off to take a nap. Let ‘em come I say, these leitmotivs, since in God’s playground, they are diminished into earworms of grace. In a Spirit-borne rest, even distractions become holy. I might even find myself singing the nasty little buggers ‘cause, you know, if you can’t beat ‘em…

TGIF picture:

Earworm picture:

Man in hammock:

4 thoughts on “Reflections on faith and art – Earworms of Grace: Leitmotiv

  1. Yeps! I sometimes wonder if my earworms are delivering some message from my subconscious. I think I should write them down (like recording a dream) and see if something is revealed.

    The inane jingles are a nuisance, but I also get absolutely meaningless made-up words (like “pinkstacha” and “morgangello”) caught in repetitive eddies in my mind – I have no idea where they come from. Sometimes I google them to see if they mean anything; that’s how I know “rumi lentokon” means something like “bad aeroplane” in Finnish … go figure.


  2. You have Sabbath chi?! Cool! Sometimes I have Sabbath Chai … but mostly I drink strong coffee. I’d like to hear more from the “Rife Armchair Translation” by the way 😉


    1. The Sabbath chi, upon further investigation, turned out to be indigestion and the Rife Armchair Translation is riddled with angry colloquialisms and street talk unfit for family consumption (perfect grammar however which is always delightful).


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