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Max Roytenberg

Max Roytenberg: What’s It All About?

Max Roytenberg, May 2014, Dublin

I’m thinking about the songs I sing and the lyrics I write. I’m asking-what’s it all about? We are all here for a brief time-it seems so brief looking back (events in our lives are telescoped into brevity in the face of the bulkiness of now)-it seemed to stretch out to forever into the future when we were starting out. Conceived as part of someone else’s dream, we are clothed with the apparel handed down from our parents, who got their clothing the same way. We may choose to wear it, even embellish it, or choose to cast it off and tailor our own clothing. Some of what we inherit, and absorb in our nurturing, we carry with us in our bodies and in our minds, shaping what we are and what we become, in spite of any decision we might make about what we want to be. Staring into the bright lights of our sudden existence as sentient creatures, we all must have, as we became acquainted with our surroundings, struggled to make some sense of the situation in which we found ourselves.

Did we think about it? Why was I born here and not there? Why was I born like this and not like that? How many of us actually thought about that? I do remember thinking that mine wasn’t the best possible hand that I could have been dealt. I remember thinking that, like it or not, the clothing that I had inherited would always define me; I concluded that there was no escape from it and that it was my job to make the most of what I had. Anger, ambition and hunger stiffened my spine and fuelled a determination to embellish what I had. It never occurred to me to attempt escape. A lack of imagination? All around us we see millions who are motivated by a desire to escape where they came from. The New World, where I had the good fortune to be born, has that as its scripture.

The thinking man, or woman, always asks the same question-why are we here? Are we just animals who live, breathe, eat, breed and die? Are we just here to pass on a seed to ensure another generation? Or are we challenged to do more? Do we demand more of ourselves? Where does the internal itch come from commanding us to do more? Alexander the Great conquered the known world and created an empire that lasted nearly two hundred years, spreading the heritage of Grecian civilization. He died at the age of twenty-seven. The Judeo-Christian ethic was spread to the world through the actions of only a few individuals. Our legacies were the arts, science and a moral code that gave us our civilization. How grand!   Yes, but what about us ordinary folks? Most of us are not giants of history.

As the only self-conscious species on this planet, does each one of us have some obligation to advance the species in some way, nurturing our own bodies, or our own minds, in some way- or those of others, in some way? Is it a moral imperative? Surely it must be only self-imposed. Did I raise a thinking child, help someone in need, do something that advanced a worthwhile cause, create something that improved a life? Isn’t it saying something about me if I demand more of myself? Or don’t? So often it involves conflicting choices of beneficiaries. Is it that I must have some motive; caring for the closest as my beneficiaries? Can my vision go beyond my personal circle to motivate me to an effort to achieve a broader goal, spurring me to action at a cost, at a risk to myself?

I am asking myself these questions and totting up my score. I’ve always thought of myself as having done some good things.  Am I up to scratch in the scoring myself, in my appraisal of others? Yes I do measure my fellows. That one did well and that one did not. Don’t many of us do that? A lot of it is personal ego, isn’t it? And the standards I use, they’re a measure of self-comparison. What bloody nerve I had-have!

Looking back now, long after the ego-massaging applause at my exploits has ceased ringing in my ears and faded away, my view as to empire-building aspirations has changed, my face has turned another way. The guy who came back home from work every night and played with the kids, who thought about fulfilling the wife’s needs as best he could, who sent the next generation off with healthy bodies and minds-he’s the guy who ranks the highest in my book. I am re-appraising the story of my life, and things don’t look so hot.  I find myself way back in the scoring, and far away from the head of the crowd.

So, that’s what it was all about!


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