Chance and Fate: Thank you, Neil Peart

I spend a good deal of my time on this website discussing the significance of suffering, the importance of seeking meaning in life through redeeming pain and failure, and the need to reject the all-too-human temptation to mistake stability and comfort for fulfillment and happiness. And in my private discussions with good students I come to know well, I always emphasize the urgency of removing one’s masks, by which I mean those social faces we adopt to avoid disappointing others’ expectations, or in response to fear of having our “weaknesses” exposed.

In all of these lessons, public and private, one of my recurring themes is that our basic and preternatural ignorance is sufficient grounds for accepting the inevitability of risk and difficulty without giving in to excessive fear. That is to say, you don’t know which event in your life, which hardship, failure, or embarrassment, might turn out to have far-reaching, even life-altering, effects down the road. Refusing to start out on that road in fear of the shame or pain one might meet only ensures that you will have no chance to find any beauty or treasure that might also be lying up ahead, and for which all the discomfort and folly along the way may prove to have been a relatively small price to pay in the end.

A few days ago, I read the news that Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for the rock group Rush, had died on January 7th, at age sixty-seven, after a three-year fight with brain cancer. I don’t generally listen to rock or pop music these days, and had not thought about Rush in quite some time. Peart’s death, however, hit me with emotions that I have rarely experienced at anyone’s death — and I don’t mean any celebrity, but any person. I spent a good part of the day thinking about why.

I was fifteen years old, pacing the basement floor of my family home, alone, as was my habit. I was an inveterate loner in those days (much as now), partly by temperament and choice, but also partly, as is typical of our kind, due to feeling profoundly ill-fitted to, and unwanted by, the social world comprised of my “peers.”

My portable stereo radio-cassette player was tuned to the local rock music station — I mean rock, not top forty pop. I was an outsider and had no close friends left — puberty was the beginning of the end of whatever genuine companionship I had ever had — so my lonely soul’s companions were musicians, usually those of a slightly earlier era, and always those who seemed to speak from beyond the comfortable confines of the trendy hairdos and “catchy hooks” that appealed to the in-crowd of my age, among whom I most certainly did not belong. I preferred groups and songs that were sincerely invested in the strange or adventurous, resided well outside the pop music mainstream, and seemed to express a kind of solace in isolation, preferably with lyrics that eschewed the usual rock music themes — sex, coolness, mock-angry “rebellion” — in favor of interesting word puzzles or grandiose fantasy worlds built on the ashes of epic poetry.

One group that had recently made its way onto my radar in those days was the Canadian hard rock trio, Rush. I didn’t know much about them, but I had heard a few songs that seemed “progressive” enough to suit my growing taste for the kind of rock that was reaching for musical horizons a little more distant than the nearest discotheque, with themes a little more elevated than the nearest drug party. In short, though working in an inescapably diminished and restrictive form, this Canadian trio seemed to be earnest and original musicians.

That day, in the basement, the radio station broadcast a show featuring songs from the new Rush album, Signals. The first song on the program was the album’s opener, “Subdivisions.” The song began with a subterranean one-note bass pedal rhythm, more a deep rumble than musical intro, followed by a sudden burst of simple chords on a keyboard. Adding suspense and fascination to these quick-developing noises was drumming that somehow managed to combine perfect technical precision with the intensity of the wildest freeform percussion solo. It was as though the most ferocious emotional uprising were somehow being held in flawless control by the thinnest crystalline tethers. This, as I subsequently learned, was the unique, perhaps unreplicable style of Neil Peart — imagine a fine Swiss clock made of sledgehammers.

I was excited, hooked if you will. But the song’s instrumental introduction did nothing to prepare me for what was coming. The first verse, rather than killing the promise of Deep Meaning contained in those dramatic opening chords (as rock lyrics almost invariably do, since they are almost invariably written by numbskulls), actually heightened the drama:

Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown

My fifteen-year-old brain had no idea what this song was supposed to be about; but those words, unlike any normal pop song lyrics, felt like a literary preface, a stage-setting. I was being prepared for something important, with words exhibiting the same kind of restrained intensity and precision that had impressed me about the drumming seconds earlier.

Then it came: the second verse that formed the crux of the song, and that affected me, like thousands of other boys around the world that week, with a jolt of unprecedented recognition. This song was about me.

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone

Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone

The directness and intensity of the words matched the drumming style, because, as I discovered, they were the work of the same man. For probably the first time, I felt that a songwriter was addressing my life — not the pop music fantasy world of fame and girls and “relationships” and cool rebel posing and one-world communist propaganda and laughable tough-guy “hero” stances, but the real world of alienated youth and discomfort and awkwardness in the midst of modern middle class society. I don’t remember my exact thoughts or actions at that moment, of course, but there is no doubt I was moved and enthralled, and listening to this song with an intellectual focus that was something new to me as a young music fan.

But even this initial head-on assault against the soul-deadening oppressiveness of mainstream life — the life of most of the band’s core audience — was a bit too abstract for Peart’s aims. Exhibiting the patience and restraint of a truly good writer, he waited for the song’s chorus to concretize the issue so bluntly that the fifteen-year-old loner pacing in his basement was immediately compelled to wonder, “How can anyone understand my experience this fully?”

In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out

Any escape might help to smooth
The unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
The restless dreams of youth.

Every day, I was palpably aware that I couldn’t be cool. I didn’t know how to conform. So I was cast out. That “unattractive truth” was precisely my experience. And now, as I discovered with amazement, someone else had seen it. Someone with a public platform, someone who had presumably lived through similarly stigmatizing pressures and insecurities, but who had broken free and found his voice and succeeded magnificently, was in effect telling me, “Yes, I know what you are going through — but there is a way out.”

From that day, I was a full-blown Rush fan — which is the only kind really, as the group was always a sort of litmus test among rock music fans. You loved them or you hated them. There was no in-between.

And then, against all expectations and all rock music precedent, Peart and his bandmates steered the song entirely away from the easy fist-waving “Old people are the problem” temptation, and toward something I had never heard in a song before, namely an objective attempt at rational explanation. From a searing depiction of the problem, Peart turned to soberly pondering the question of causality.

Drawn like moths, we drift into the city
The timeless old attraction
Cruising for the action
Lit up like a firefly
Just to feel the living night

Some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight

Somewhere out of a memory
Of lighted streets on quiet nights…

This song’s thrust or motive was not angst, anger, or bitterness. It was an idea. In concise, pithy verses, Peart was attempting to grasp the psychological mechanism that sustains this self-perpetuating cycle of middle class conformity, and that continually leads men back to the very source of their youthful anxiety and discomfort — and leads them back to it, paradoxically, in search of the panacea of security and comfort that they had previously experienced as a hell on Earth. It was only years later, as an adult, that I could say I fully understood, in my own heart, how life’s inevitable bludgeoning effects — losing the race to rats or getting caught in ticking traps — can trick a man into the dream of escaping from his restless flight into “somewhere out of a memory of lighted streets on quiet nights,” which is to say right back to “the mass production zone,” where he himself will become a part of the detached and subdivided world where the dreamer or misfit (his own child, perhaps) will be so alone.

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that this song, and a few others like it from the Rush catalogue, insinuated itself into my teenage emotional fibers in such a way as to become a kind of protective spiritual armor against exactly the temptation to compromise or give in that might otherwise have trapped me in the self-perpetuating cycle of anxiety-failure-escape-comfort that Peart had defined for my fifteen-year-old self.

Now here’s the point of this story. As I delved into the band’s earlier discography during my early high school days, I found some references to a writer named Ayn Rand, and even in one case a kind of dedicatory statement. Being a fan of Rush, and also increasingly interested in books and ideas, it was inevitable that I would seek out Rand’s writing to discover what the younger Peart had been responding to. I started with her novella, Anthem, but then quickly became much more inclined toward her essay collections, which I read and re-read with obsessive focus throughout high school — while hiding out in a corner of the school library during skipped classes, as a matter of fact. In Rand, as with Peart, I seemed to have found a spiritual ally, someone who could break through my hard shell of confusion and isolation to speak directly to an outsider who might, without such spiritual friendship, have ended up in a much more hopeless and forlorn condition, the kind from which many people never escape, unless it be into some self-protective version of “normalcy.”

I stumbled my way into university — God knows how, as I was a terrible and unmotivated high school student. When I arrived, however, all my academic energy found its focus in my philosophy classes. Rand had taught me to admire Aristotle as her favorite philosopher, though I had never read him myself. When I did read him, along with Plato and the rest of the Western tradition, I finally realized how immature and uneducated a philosopher Rand herself actually was. And yet it was through her that I had finally found my true and defining path in life, just as it had been through Peart that I had found Rand.

Having leapt into the philosophic life with relish (although of course falteringly at first), I gradually discovered my teaching instincts — the last thing in the world I would have imagined for myself, given my social awkwardness and inexperience.

I met my wife on this path. I began to develop my own manner of thinking. I learned to tame and guide my compulsion to write, and thus to discern my writer’s mission, if you will. As a teacher, I have met various students over the years, including many here on the other side of the world, in Korea, whose lives, to my continual amazement, have been substantially and qualitatively changed — in some cases even saved from fates similar to the one I narrowly escaped in my teens, or even worse — through their meeting and studying with me.

At almost every point in my life where I had to make a significant choice about how to proceed, I chose what others in our time would have judged the counterintuitive path. That is, I chose against the interests of comfort, security and “a stable life.” I never did this to be dramatic or iconoclastic, and my choices often led to considerable practical difficulty, compelling further unorthodox choices later on. There is little doubt in my mind that part of the willpower I needed to carry on in this way, without giving in to practical fear, anxiety, and external expectations, grew from a seed that was germinated in my “wasted” teenage years, in soil enriched with the timely encouragement not to sell my dreams for small desires, and never to let the inevitability of losing many races to rats, or the pressures of life’s ticking traps, bend me into submission to the social mechanism — the “somewhere” to relax my restless flight — that I could see swallowing so many of my peers.

Recently, a student I have been mentoring for over a year, as she tries to break herself out of some extremely self-destructive mental and behavioral habits, tried to overcome my challenge about some of her worst choices by objecting, “The past is the past.”

“No it isn’t,” I replied. “The past is the present. Your past is you, right now, and there’s nothing you can do to erase that.”

She lamented, “But then I can never make my life perfect.”

“No one’s life can be perfect, but you can make your life better by redeeming your past, which means finding a positive meaning or value in your choices or errors or weaknesses that you didn’t see at the time, but that you will discover later. As long as you try to reject your past or ignore it, you can never give it that meaning, so your life’s picture will always have random lines in it that make the picture confused. You have to make those mistakes into meaningful lines within your whole picture, and you can’t do that as long as you are lying to yourself by saying ‘The past is the past.'”

I used to feel embarrassed about my youthful enthusiasm for rock music, as though it made me irredeemably less serious, less emotionally and morally developed, than I ought to have been, and than I would have been, had I become immersed from the outset in the classical music that was always around my family home, rather than wasting so much of my energy on the tribal triviality that has devoured so much of the soul and subtlety of our world over the past few generations, and that occupied so much of my spiritual life during my teens and into my twenties.

As I have matured, and overcome the residue of childish insecurity that lingered in me (as it probably does in everyone) much longer than I wanted to admit, I have realized something about my “childish obsession”: Without it, I would never have been captivated by “Subdivisions” in my parents’ basement at fifteen; would never have had the long-distance mentoring relationship that I, like many others, enjoyed with Neil Peart and Rush; and might never have stumbled into all the increasingly fulfilling and necessary choices and discoveries of my life that indirectly flowed out of that mentoring relationship.

The random lines and mistaken streaks of my youth have been incorporated into the whole of my life’s picture now. And they have proved, against all expectations, to be essential to the picture. The past is not the past. My past is me, right now, and there is nothing I can do to erase that. Nor would I want to, for in erasing it, I would be erasing or marring the comprehensive and complete picture of a life I would not change for anyone’s — not because it is my life, but because it is a better kind of life than I probably deserve. 

There is a lot of “chance” in “fate.” Fate, in the end, may be nothing but what we call chance until we finally figure out what all those “accidents” meant.

The day after the news of Peart’s death broke, Patterico, one of the very few American political bloggers who has refused to sell out to the Trump cult and the Republican Party establishment — at some real personal cost to himself — wrote a tribute to Peart, whom he cited as a major personal influence. Summarizing his assessment of the man and his work, he writes that “he lived out his greatest fantasy: to be a principled artist who never gave in to commercial pressures, and always stood up to the powers that be. He was a very important influence in my life, and in the lives of countless others.”

When I found Patterico’s tribute, I was somehow entirely unsurprised. There is little doubt in my mind that the “very important influence” to which he refers is part of the source of his own intransigence in refusing to pretend to see something in Trump that is manifestly not there, regardless of the personal cost in readership and friendships that has been his reward for his steadfast principles. I would not be surprised to find that almost any American political writer of roughly my age who has kept his head and his core while all around him have joined the cult, experienced some of Peart’s influence in his formative years.

When adults describe rock musicians as formative influences in their lives, what they are usually telling you, inadvertently, is that they never grew up. But Peart and Rush would be among the extremely rare exceptions to that. Contrary to the pop music norm, they actually helped many of us grow up.

Their songs (and also the lack of mainstream acceptance of their work) taught many young outsiders to resist the endless pressure to conform to the ugly social expectations of progressive soft despotism. Their music, played with power, volume, intensity, and genuine technical excellence that put all the more mainstream and “cool” rock bands to shame and then some, gave many of us our little enclave of confident insouciance amid the pressures and fears of the outsider’s life. And Peart’s lyrics, calibrated to appeal to young people craving a meaningful escape route from late modernity’s blandness, gave many young men (and a few women too, I presume) the courage to think for themselves, social rejection and ostracism be damned.

Though my rock fan days are behind me, my emotional and developmental debt to Peart, Geddy Lee, and Alex Lifeson can never be repaid. They helped me, as a gawky teenage loner in the midst of public school’s spiritual prison, to grow up without surrendering or becoming embittered. I honestly don’t know where or what I would be now if I hadn’t heard “Subdivisions” on the radio in my parents’ basement in 1982. Those three men helped to pull me through.

Neil Peart died last week of brain cancer. I cannot repay him. The best I can do is say, in proper Rush fan fashion, “Thank you, Professor.”

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