What do you do when the life you’re living has started to feel meaningless? When you’ve lost your sense of purpose and find that you’re going through the motions instead of actually feeling alive. I suspect we’ve all been there a time or two. And in this post-pandemic period there are far more people needing a cure for existential dread than we can ever imagine.
A friend told me the other day that he’s been in a depression and felt he no longer had a purpose in life—that he wasn’t doing any good in the world. This really caught me off guard because you’d never suspect this from him. He’s always put on a very good show of being Mr. Positivity.
I’m glad he told me and I’m relieved that he’s getting help and is admitting what’s really going on. Because . . .
Living without a sense of meaning isn’t really living at all.
But finding meaning isn’t necessarily a walk in the park, either. We may need to descend into a very dark place before we can find the light again.
Dr. William Breitbart, chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center offers this:
“Your responsibility is to create a life of meaning. Of growth, and transformation. It so happens that very few people grow from success. People grow from failure. They grow from adversity. They grow from pain.” (Excerpted from an interview in Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain, p. 226.)
There’s more, “If on your deathbed you look back and see a life lived fully, you feel peace. People who believe that they didn’t do enough with their lives too often feel shame. But the key to fulfillment, says Breitbart, is learning to love who you are (which is unconditional and unceasing) rather than what you’ve done.” (Cain, p. 227.)
It takes courage to admit what’s really going on and seek help. Just as it takes courage to admit who we really are and to love ourselves—not in spite of who we are—but because of it.
So how do we cure existential dread?
Take me to the Waters of March
You may already have specific music that helps you reignite your sense of meaning. A stash of recordings that remind you of how to be in this world and make sense of it.
And if you’re like me, you may also need to regularly find new material for your meaning-making playlist. Here’s the latest piece that’s been working its way through me.
Written in 1972 and voted Brazil’s all-time best song in 2001, Águas de Março (Waters of March) is a jazz standard and bossa nova classic that may just be the perfect antidote to existential dread.
Written by Antônio Carlos (aka Tom) Jobim, the song was inspired by Rio’s rainiest month, with its sudden storms, heavy rains, and flooding. The destructive waters of March can wash out roads and destroy homes, carrying sticks and stones and shards of glass, and just about anything else in its wake. Jobim wrote the song after having his car stuck in the mud on the way to his family’s rancho, one rainy season.
The song’s lyrics detail HOW we experience life. Jobim offers a fluid montage of disparate images and associations, good and bad, big and small. It’s the everyday stuff of life including the random moments of beauty, joy, and pain.
Of course, there are hundreds of recordings of this song to choose from (in multiple languages) but the English version I recommend starting with is Luciana Souza’s 2007 recording. I love the way she delivers the text and how she plays with the timing—dancing over and around the pulse of the ostinato—getting the whole thing to swerve and sway.
Take a listen and follow along with the text below—see what you make of it.
A stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road. The rest of the stump, a little alone.
A sliver of glass, it is life, the sun. It is night, it is death, it’s a trap, it’s a gun.
The oak when it blooms, the fox in the brush, a knot in the wood, the song of a thrush.
The wood of the wind, a cliff, a fall, a scratch, a lump, nothing at all.
It’s the wind blowing free, it’s the end of the slope. It’s a beam, it’s a void, it’s a hunch, it’s a hope.
And the riverbank talks of the waters of March. It’s the end of the strain, it’s the joy in your heart.
The foot, the ground, the flesh, and the bone, the beat of the road, a slingshot stone.
A fish, a flash, a silvery glow, a fight, a bet, the range of the bow.
The bed of the well, the end of the line, the dismay in the face, it’s a loss, it’s a find.
A spear, a spike, a point, a nail, a drip, a drop, the end of the tale.
A truckload of bricks in the soft morning light. The shot of a gun, in the dead of the night.
A mile, a must, a thrust, a bump. It’s a girl, it’s a rhyme, it’s the cold, it’s the mumps.
The plan of the house, the body in bed. The car that got stuck, it’s the mud, it’s the mud.
A float, a drift, a flight, a wing, a hawk, a quail, the promise of spring.
And the riverbank talks of the waters of March. It’s the promise of life, the joy in your heart.
A snake, a stick, it is John, it is Joe. A thorn in your hand, and a cut on your toe.
A point, a grain, a bee, a bite, a blink, a buzzard, the sudden stroke of night.
A pin, a needle, a sting, a pain, a snail, a riddle, a wasp, a stain.
A pass in the mountains, a horse, and a mule, in the distance the shelves rode three shadows of blue.
And the riverbank talks of the waters of March. The promise of life in your heart, in your heart.
A stick, a stone, the end of the load. The rest of the stump, a lonesome road.
A sliver of glass, a life, the sun, a knife, a death, the end of the run.
And the riverbank talks of the waters of March. It’s the end of all strain, it’s the joy in your heart.
Isn’t life like that?
The song’s simple melodic loop plays over an oscillating backdrop. And life can feel like that, too, each day and week running into the next in a seemingly endless descending spiral of time.
The implied question is, can we wake up enough in life to experience the beauty and the joy—even while we’re mired in the muck.
For Brazilians, the phrase “waters of March” refers to the destructive nature of the rainy season, the flooding, the landslides, the devastation.
Jobim’s lyrics play on the idea that life, like the seasons, is an ongoing cycle of birth, death, and renewal. That without pain there’s no joy, and that a beginning implies an end, and an end, a beginning.
The seasons roll forward through time, and the years go by in a relentless push toward the end of all our strain.
How to make sense of existential dread
Whatever belief system you subscribe to, in the end, we all need to grapple with our own mortality and with the fact that much of life can seem random and pointless.
As Breitbart suggests, our ultimate job is to create a life of meaning. As musicians, that’s the very business we are in, as the arts are a platform for meaning-making.
But of course, musicians can fall prey to existential dread just as easily as anyone else.
So, let’s think about . . .
The process: the alchemy required to transform experience into meaning
It always starts, for me, with an incident that’s charged with energy—something that stops me in my tracks or takes my breath away.
This can happen in witnessing and really seeing the beauty of nature—a hawk in flight or the earliest blooms of the mountain laurel. It’s in these moments that time slows down and something shifts.
Or you might witness an example of the beauty of human nature—the kindness of a stranger going out of his way to help someone else. And suddenly you’re surprised that you’re so moved by this.
And it can happen when you come across a work of art that sets your imagination on fire and in the process, plugs you into the interconnectedness of all life.
Whether we have an experience like this with art or nature—human or otherwise—the incident shocks us out of our immediate concerns, and temporarily short-circuits our ego.
And in that lull, there’s a rush of gratitude for what we’ve witnessed, and a sense of regained cohesion and connection with our true selves and with the world.
In those moments we are grateful to be alive and connected to the dance of life. To what really matters most.
That is how we can find (or re-discover) a sense of meaning in life.
But to be clear, meaning isn’t a one and done kind of thing. Instead, meaning is what we actively co-create in the here and now in an ongoing response to being in the world.
So meaning is something we need to make anew as often as needed. To keep developing as artists and as people—and to make sense of our increasingly chaotic world—we need to keep finding new inspirations and paths to meaning-making.
I can often hold on to a sense of meaning for days, weeks, or even months after the inciting inspiration. But inevitably, it fades, and I begin to sink back into the mud of existence, lost in the everyday concerns and the slog of life. And things can get pretty damn bleak before I find the next fix of wonder and meaning.
But (knock on wood) I always manage to do so—and for this I am truly grateful.
That said, translating meaning into action is where the real magic happens.
Translation as transformation
To capture the experience of life in a song or poem in your native language is already a feat. But then to recreate that work’s sensibility in another language, and to honor the meaning and even keep the rhyme scheme—that’s some serious mojo.
On this site you’ll find the text to Waters of March in the original Portuguese in the first column, the literal translation in the second, and in the third, what Jobim wrote for the English edition. To make the new version work, Jobim changed the order of some of the translated stanzas and created new ones as well.
I’m curious about the process of translation because I’m fascinated with how people find meaning in life, in music, in language. In all three cases we are translating and transforming our felt experience into another medium. So, there’s the experience itself, and then there’s the meaning we make from it.
After that, it’s up to us to act on that meaning—to bring it to life in the world.
Closer to the source
Now that you’ve listened to a translated version, check this video of Elis Regina and Jobim performing Águas de Março back in 1972. Listen to the spell of the song being cast here in a completely different light. Many consider this to be the definitive performance. And it’s fun to see these two flirting in the midst of their recording session.
For me, this song (and especially this version) captures the bittersweet truth of life. That it’s often absurd, and full of both wonder and suffering—and before we can even get the hang of it—it’s over.
So how exactly is this a cure for existential dread?
First, there’s real solace in finding a work of art that assures us that yes, life truly IS like this. That it’s supposed to be like this. That the suffering and the wonder are there in the river of life to help us find our own meaning so we can become more of who we really are.
And second, in this performance, the life energy that these two radiate is the best reminder for us all to go for a life fully lived.
In the end, it’s all about what you do with the meaning you’ve made
When you can translate your own sense of meaning into action that benefits others, you open the door to fulfillment, gratitude, and grace.
Meaning is what motivates us to do the difficult work. So, take heart and have the courage to take action.
That’s what I wish for you, and for all of us.
And though this is where I’d normally sign off, I can’t do that without first giving you 3 last fantastic versions of Waters of March to consider. Because in the end, you need to . . .
Find the cure for existential dread that works best for you
In researching Waters of March, I found an amazing range of approaches and interpretations. This is yet another testimony to the song’s magic—that it can be reimagined in so many convincing ways and can live on in new forms for audiences decades later.
Writer James Fallows contributed a marvelous series on Waters of March for The Atlantic, and thanks to him, I found these three other favorite versions for your consideration . . .
First, here are David Byrne and Marisa Monte singing Waters of March (2012) in a hybrid mix of the two versions of the texts. There’s a short interview to start. Byrne’s re-conception of the song is terrific and this version only gets better each time you listen.
Second, here is a purely instrumental arrangement. It’s a set of wild variations on Waters of March from the Brazilian experimental percussion ensemble Uakti (also from 2012). Whatever you might expect, this isn’t that. Beware, it enters the blood stream directly and is addictive.
And finally, here is life as seen through the Trader Joe experience. The arranger posted this description: “unauthorized commercial for Trader Joe’s shot on my Palm Treo before I accidentally ran over it with my car.” The creative credit goes to Carl Willat who made this in 2009 with Enrique Coria on guitar and David Lisle, piano.
I’d love to know what music has helped you get past existential dread. Send your recommendations in—they are most appreciated!
Here’s to finding the music that heals,
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well
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