Ask Them What They Love

Ryuichi Sakamoto has died. In late March he succumbed to cancer. It is a great loss for the world. If you have not heard of Ryuichi Sakamoto, you have surely heard his music. It is some of the most beautiful ever composed. 

Sakamoto has captured emotions and elevated movies to Oscar worthy level with compositions that weave a tapestry of colors and artistry. While there is a hint of Asian influence in his themes, his works are universal. You may remember the haunting coda of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence or the epic tones of The Last Emperor. In Wuthering Heights Sakamoto captured the possessive love of Heathcliff for Catherine with dramatic crescendos of piano and cello. The darkness of the music underpinning The Revenant heightens the pain and struggles of the hero. In fact, all of Sakamoto’s music is elemental, experimental and moving. 

Music is one of the inventions that seems to raise humanity to a place higher than the animal world. While birds sing and other creatures croon, It is humankind that that creates new sounds with instruments outside of their own voices. Sakamoto was a master at that. In fact he was one of the first composers to experiment with electronic sounds and different cadences in music. 

I sometimes hear people advocating for educations that only include practical majors. They poke fun at the arts, insisting that they are of little value to either the student or society. How ironic that during the Renaissance wealthy patrons supported painters, sculptors, writers and musicians. We herald that time as one of awakening and a leap forward in human progress and yet many today undervalue the very things that were encouraged during that time. 

I can’t imagine why we place higher values on some talents than others. We certainly need engineers, but it would be silly to have an overabundance of them and besides so many people are not the least bit interested in the kind of jobs that they do. Business is important as is medicine, but where would we be without music, plays, movies, books, paintings? Those are beautiful representations that humans have created from the most ancient times. It seems to be in our DNA to leave our imprint on the world with works of art. 

I have often found that the kind of people who complain about so called “useless” majors have never really attempted to become proficient in them or anything else for that matter. They droned away at jobs they disliked and dreamed of what they might have been. Studying any field is difficult and everyone of them serves purposes that we may not see unless we pay careful attention. For example a friend’s son majored in geography and was often taunted for choosing a subject that would only lead to a job teaching. In truth he found work with NASA because of his skills in understanding the impact of differing environments. His knowledge is essential in the future explorations of the universe and in the study of the impact of climate change. He has had no trouble finding a rewarding and meaningful career.

I was an English major with a mathematics minor. I ended up teaching mathematics for all of my time as an educator because schools had a shortage of people certified to teach math. I’ve had individuals tell me how smart I was to get a decent minor because an English major is worthless. I can think of nothing farther from the truth. Not only did I learn how to communicate in both formal writing and speech, but I realized the grandeur of the human mind as expressed in the words of plays, stories, books. I saw that linguistically words have a kind of mathematical logic. I have always believed that I was a better math teacher because of my English major than I would have been without it. 

We need everyone and we should not be on a rampage to eliminate the kind of learning that we rate as being less important than others. How dreary the world would be without is great variety! How wonderful that each of us has so many choices for living our lives? Inside every human there is a singular talent waiting to be free. Somewhere the next Ryuichi Sakamoto is banging on a toy piano and making beautiful sounds. A child with a great imagination and ability with words is already creating stories for his friends. The fingerpainting of a baby may lead to the work of a future Picasso. That child who soothes someone wounded by a bully may one day be a brilliant counselor. We should be encouraging them all to use their talents, not telling them that they are wasting their time.

Let’s be the patrons of this era. Let’s help all young people find and cultivate their passions. By inhibiting their enthusiasm we will most likely end up with a frustrated adult working at a joyless job. Let our young dream and strive for what makes them excited. Don’t suggest careers, instead ask them what they love. Therein is the key to a successful life. Nurture each person just as he or she wants to be.  


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