Walking into the kitchen last weekend, Riley, our 14-year-old son, declared, “Dad, you need to hear this great song by Mumford & Sons. It’s so good. It’s called, ‘The Boxer.’”
I smiled – and remembered listening to the original Simon & Garfunkel version over and over while driving around in my VW Bug during high school.
Music has a way of connecting the generations, its notes, chords and lyrics conceived long ago, invisibly but assuredly tying us to musicians, melodies and moments now faded with time.
I listened with Riley to “The Boxer” – one of Paul Simon’s folk classics, and I was reminded again of just how much wisdom is found within that old ballad – especially for those who foment protests across the country.
Long considered to be somewhat autobiographical, Simon credited a Gideon hotel Bible with inspiring portions of the lyrics. He even went so far as to call the song “biblical” – particularly the steady lament that’s articulated throughout the piece’s six verses.
The horrific death of George Floyd has elicited sorrow of a different kind, a collective grief, much of it voiced by young people who feel aggrieved and agitated – even let down by a nation that’s not living up to its ideals.
Paul Simon’s classic begins by touching on this type of pain, painting a picture of a troubled and misunderstood man:
I am just a poor boy
though my story’s seldom told
I have squandered my resistance
for a pocket full of mumbles such are promises
Setting aside the violent anarchists who seek to desecrate and destroy, I see in many of the peaceful protestors a similar ache. They feel like people don’t get them.
On the surface, the protests are billed as a reaction to the killing of an unarmed black man.
But go a layer deeper.
Whether they realize it or not, many of the protestors are reacting because they’re acknowledging that many of the world’s promises are empty and vacuous. Society trades in all kinds of lies – beauty, fame, fortune – and a belief that truth is relative rather than absolute.
It’s the realization of the world’s lies Simon was alluding to by referencing a “pocket full of mumbles” – lies disguised as empty promises.
It’s an empty promise to say black lives matter – which of course each one does – but then ignore the fact that more black children are aborted each year in New York City than are born.
True and lasting racial reconciliation will only come when all life is respected and protected under law.
One of the sad ironies of this massive unrest is that though thousands gather together to voice objection (a strange and curious sight in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic), far too many of those assembled are actually lonely.
In fact, it’s this very phenomenon that Simon and Garfunkel were getting at when they sang:
In the company of strangers
In the quiet of the railway station
Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places only they would know
How can you be lonely in a crowded railroad station? Very easily.
Despite social media and constant connectedness through the miracle of technology, loneliness is a raging epidemic in America. By contrast, true community contributes to civility and respect. It’s hard to hate somebody with whom you actually spend time.
I bet many of these protestors are actually insecure and running scared – looking for their place in life.
Paul Simon’s emotional serenade concludes on a reflective yet determined note, showing us the way forward, even in our current chaos:
In the clearing stands a boxer
and a fighter by his trade
and he carries the reminders
of every glove that laid him down
or cut him till he cried out
in his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
but the fighter still remains
Life is imperfect, and all of us have suffered blows of various degrees – “reminders” we carry with us from one day or year to the next. But champions don’t throw in the towel – fighters battle on, working toward a better day and a “more perfect union,” as the Preamble in the Constitution ascribes.
America has been a metaphorical boxer these last few months, enduring blow after blow. I believe there are millions upon millions of good people standing strong in the ring, weathering the battle, refusing to be counted or knocked out.
The resilient fighter in us still remains, and for that, I am grateful.