A Twang In My Heart

Tom Morris

Some time ago, USA Today ran a cover story in their Life section on country music singer Alan Jackson. This is a man who had at the time already sold 25 million records, had been named Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, and lived in a 30,000 square foot mansion. The article was not about his career accomplishments or financial success, though; it was an account of his recent bout of "almost suicidal" depression, and how he is in the process of saving a marriage that had been in free fall from a story book beginning, careening toward a text book divorce. Jackson told USA Today:

I'd always been the type person who didn't understand people who'd commit suicide. I thought that was the stupidest thing in the world - that if it got that bad, why didn't you just change it and move on?

But then he found himself confronted with what seems to have been an almost Tolstoyan struggle with the meaning of his success, and why it wasn't making him happy. He came to realize that, in a deeply important way, he had been taking the wrong approach to life, and that his innermost attitude toward what he was doing wasn't taking him to where he wanted to be as a person.He commented:

What was happening was, I couldn't be happy. I kept trying to let everything else make me happy.

And then he said, with the sort of perceptiveness that makes for a good twist in a reflective country ballad.

Maybe that's why I'm a success. I worked so hard to get all this stuff to make me happy. Then that didn't do it. It actually got worse.

Here's the question: Do we often, and maybe even inevitably, do good things for what are really the wrong reasons? Is outer success in the world often the result of an inner need for happiness that cannot be satisfied by external things?

Wouldn't it be an odd truth about the world if only the intrinsic rewards of a job - the sense of good that comes from a worthy task well done - truly satisfy us, but only the extrinsic rewards we anticipate - the money, or power, or recognition - typically motivate us to work as hard as it takes to really make our mark in the world? The question is: Do we tend to be motivated by the things that can never fully satisfy? And, if so, can we turn that around?

The great novelist Leo Tolstoy recounts in his famous book Confession that at the peak of his own success, he started to ask some of these same questions, issues that were forced on him by a sudden depression amidst accomplishment that he could not fully understand. As a young man, he chased money and fame. And he got both, in large measure. He married, and then pursued the security, comfort, and physical well being of his family. But when all the externals were finally in place, he began to ask the deeper questions of why he was doing any of the things that had come to dominate his day.

Alan Jackson needed to begin to come to terms with some of these issues before he could turn his life around and recover from a tail spin that no one but a philosopher might have expected. And his example leaves us all with a question that each of us should ponder: What really and deeply motivates me in what I'm doing, the inner sense that I'm doing something worthy, noble and good, or the outer goods that might result?

What puts a twang in my heart?

It is the nature of every man to err, but only a fool perseveres in error.
Cicero

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