The Nothing We Know

If I could bring only one piece of music with me to a desert island it would be Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which I suppose is a cliché—but who cares? The heart loves what it loves. I did not know when I first heard the Ninth Symphony that Beethoven was deaf while he composed it; I loved it only because it was a beautiful piece of music. When I learned about the deafness, I loved the Ode all the more. By all measures, Beethoven should not have been writing an ode to joy. His life was music and he could not hear. He should have been writing an ode to tragic irony, right? Could have, but he didn’t. By the same token, no one would criticize Somaly Mam—who was sold into sexual slavery at the age of 12 and who endured there the kind of nightmare torture most novelists wouldn’t allow themselves to dream—no one would criticize her if she had no love left for humanity. She had seen humanity at its worst, and had had that worst done to her. And yet, what she wishes for the girls she now rescues from this same sexual slavery is love—not vengeance, not even justice, but love. Somehow through her own nightmare, Somaly was able to arrive at the understanding that all her justified hatred would heal nothing and grow nothing. Love alone would do that.

It is easy to look at what we had and what we’ve lost and mourn ourselves. Losses great and small accumulate day after day, and what was the use of any of it if we don’t mourn it? Why did we ever want the job, the house, the child if we are not made lesser when they are gone? This is why I would bring the Ode with me to a desert island. On the island I would have nothing, my truest state, and the Ode would remind me in its ecstasy of the nothing I never had, and the nothing I could never lose.

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