We are nearing two years since the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. And just a few days ago the fifth teen died as a result of the shooting at a high school in Washington State. The FBI recently reported on the significant increase in mass shootings in the past several years. And yet, we have been largely unable to pass national gun safety legislation to take common sense steps to increase gun safety.
What does this have to do with Stevie Wonder?
A few days ago Stevie Wonder opened his "Songs in the Key of Life" tour with a sold out performance at Madison Square Garden in New York. As a longtime fan, I was thrilled to be there. Early in the concert, Stevie announced that he was dedicating this performance to a family who had lost their daughter in the Sandy Hook school shooting. He made an emotional plea for rational gun safety policy. As he noted, we are capable of putting people into space and sending spacecraft to other planets. We have to be able to figure out how to decrease risk from guns in our communities, homes and schools.
As a psychiatrist working at The Jed Foundation, a foundation dedicated to suicide prevention, I found his comments incredibly powerful and moving. I learned later that the father of the young girl to whom the concert was dedicated was a fellow musician, Jimmy Greene. Together with his wife Nelba Marquez-Greene, LMFT, they have started their own foundation to reduce violence through the promotion of love, community and connection: www.anagraceproject.org. In fact, proceeds from Greene's soon-to-be-released album, Beautiful Life, will benefit the Ana Grace Project. This personal and professional connection to Stevie only added to the sense of poignancy of the dedication.
Music and the Mind
I've often wondered what it is that is so moving about listening to music and even more, what is so emotionally powerful about a group of people listening to live music together? Somehow, the experience of being part of this concert and dedication helped crystallize some of this for me. Stevie Wonder is a singular and unique musical vessel. He has created an immense body of music and even recorded several albums playing almost all the instruments himself by recording one track over another and piecing together a magical, musical puzzle. Yet, as a blind person, he, at times, needs help even to move around the stage. He is a unique individual intensely connected to others -- to make music and to live. Performing live, he is backed up by 20 or so musicians (I was struck that he made the effort to acknowledge and thank each member of his band by name at the end of his show).
Music, and particularly live performance, is about individuals connecting around sound, rhythm, and feelings to form a "musical community." The band and performers must be closely and harmoniously in sync with each other and in turn, for the performance to "work," must be in synch as well with the audience members. And we know that it feels good to be connected. Babies are soothed being held and hearing the heartbeat of their mother and in the rhythmic rocking and singing of a father. In fact, feeling a strong sense of connection to others in itself helps promote physical and mental health and prevent suicide!
At risk of being provocative, I would argue that much of the rhetoric against enhanced gun safety requirements is the exact antithesis of the ideas of harmony, community and connectedness. Suspicion and fear of the other are promoted, rather than connection. Those arguing against enhancing oversight want people to feel that if someone approaches, you should assume they are there to harm you. If someone is on your front lawn, they are probably coming to rob your house. (This has certainly resulted in no small amount of pain and grief.)
In his comments about gun safety, Stevie exhorted the crowd to make our voices heard. He emphasized the importance and need to speak up as individuals and as groups (NY Times op-ed writer Joe Nocera recently made a similar point about the obligation of doctors and the medical community to speak up about gun safety as a public health and suicide prevention issue). Musicians and performers who bring people together to share emotional and artistic experiences can have powerful impact in this way. Doctors, religious leaders, labor and educational leaders, parents and students need to speak out together to support rational gun safety policy in our communities. Several groups (among them: Sandy Hook Promise, Everytown for Gun Safety, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the Brady Campaign, Moms Demand Action, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and Gun Free Kids, among others) are trying to do this. We need to support their activities and efforts. We need to create increasing pressure on political leaders to finally have the courage and decency to take legislative action. We need to do what we can so that no more families have to grieve the needless loss of their children.
To Stevie Wonder
You are and continue to be a musical wonder. You may also be the closest thing we currently have to a modern day prophet. Your songs and personal advocacy are an inspiration. You have taught, informed and inspired us with messages of happiness, love, peace and yes, of anger and protest when that has been needed. Keep doing what you have been doing so we can all continue to be enriched by your very special "Inner Vision."
And please, keep singing "Songs in the Key of Life."
You can learn more about gun safety and suicide prevention at: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/
To learn more about The Jed Foundation: jedfoundation.org/newsletter
Follow us on Twitter: @Doctor_Vic @jedfoundation
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.