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Music and Joy

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What lifts you up during difficult times? Is there something in your life that can reliably center you? And even more, do you have anything readily available to you that gives you joy?

On Thanksgiving Day, London-based journalist Theunis Bates profiled a remarkable woman. His article begins:

LONDON (Nov. 25) - Former concert pianist Alice Herz-Sommer is living proof of the power of music. The world's oldest Holocaust survivor, who celebrates her 107th birthday Friday, endured the deprivations of the Prague ghetto, imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp and the murder of her husband, mother and countless other family members. Only her love of music, she says, sustained her throughout those years of darkness and heartbreak.

Bates quotes her as saying: "I know about the bad things, but I look only for the good things. The world is wonderful, it's full of beauty and miracles, art and music."

What is it about music, in particular? How did it bring one woman through the darkest times in the past century? What is its power?

Music is an art that brings us both beauty and miracles. Ancient philosophers speculated that it's the language of creation. And it's the paradoxically wonderful meeting place of mathematics and the soul - numbers dipped in delight. Music moves us and lifts us up. Its ratios, rhythms, and harmonies can cause your spirit to soar. Like all the most wonderful things in life, no one can fully explain it, but anyone can feel it. As Plato understood: "Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul."

Some of the most prominent stoic thinkers of first century Rome surmised that joy is our most fundamental natural state. Watch young animals at play. Observe small children running and tumbling outside on a sunny day. Their exuberance comes naturally. Their bodies move freely. Laughter explodes and flows. Play is creation's celebration of itself. There is often an almost musical rhythm to it. It is an important part of the dance of life.

And then things come our way that we allow to take us far from the spirit of play and disturb and even erase our joy. The world is full of distractions and difficulties, obstacles and challenges, frustrations and tragedies that can scatter us inwardly and bring us down. But the world also provides antidotes, keys to the doors that our struggles may have locked, talismans of transformation that can restore us to our best and highest state.

One of these gifts of creation is music. In fact, music seems to put us in touch with that native joy that may indeed be our birthright. We sway, we move, we dance, and we free ourselves from the troubles and constraints all around that would disturb us. As Emerson saw it, "Music takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence, and whereto." It can refresh us deeply as it returns us closer to the source of all our energy, hope, and love.

Is there any element of play in your life? And how about music itself? We all need contact with the rhythms and harmonies of creation. These are things that can take us out of ourselves, while at the same time bringing us home to ourselves, and transport us to another place - one of happiness, contentment, and joy.

Give yourself the gift of music as often as you can and, while you're at it, find some new ways to play. That will give you the gift of joy, and you'll then be able to give others gifts that are otherwise impossible. And this will yet again increase your joy.

Our centenarian seems to understand the workings of all this. In explaining her longevity, and a triumphant spirit that's expressed in many ways, including her amazing ability to still play piano up to 3 hours a day, Alice Herz-Sommer ends her interview with these words: "When you give, you receive."