(Fair warning — this song always makes me cry. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe I’ll have it figured out by the time I quit writing about it.)
Someday I’m going to write about “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, but not today. Today I want to talk about one of the songs that gets a little overlooked compared to everything else that happens in that particular musical. “Defying Gravity” is a masterpiece of raw spirit and courage and unrestrained freedom. And it earths into a home in my heart because defiance is a huge part of who I am.
But I still want to talk about “For Good.”
You don’t have to know anything about Wicked or where this song fits in the show. It’s enough just to hear it.
I had some alone time this weekend, which, as being alone usually does, led to some introspection. Also noisy singing. But mainly the former.
I looked around and started tracking all the tiny things that led me to where I am today. All the choices, big and small. Certainly attending Carleton College did a lot to push me here — without that, I probably wouldn’t be in Minnesota, probably wouldn’t know any of the people who fill my life up today. But I got to Carleton by a hundred thousand choices that came first, everything from what I thought I was going choose as a major to emerging from high school as something as a loner and being ready to walk away from everything and start over. I can look and see specific decisions that had leading consequences, but I can also see the small buildup of personality that forged a path just as well.
For me, I think the choice to be myself, unapologetically, unremittingly, has been the most decisive and defining choice of my life.
Which isn’t to say I haven’t chosen wrongly at as many junctures as I’ve chosen well. I’ve made more mistakes than I dare count. I’ve thought I was following my heart when really I was giving in to fear. I’ve thought I was picking the noble path when really it was the lazy way of least effort. It’s all well and good to want to live a life of integrity and courage, and it’s something else entirely to do it.
There’s a line from Jayne Eyre that I often think rings quite true:
“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”
They say that you become what you pretend to be. I think it’s more complicated than that; you can pretend to be a hero, but still choose cowardice if you’re not careful. Principles, as Jane says, are for the most difficult times — that is when you prove if your principles are set in stone or not. It’s easy to want to be brave, or generous, or selfless — it’s much harder to do that when literally everything inside you would rather not.
I’ve definitely failed at least as many times as the next person — but the times I have succeeded, the times when I’ve lived the life of integrity I want for myself, are some of my greatest triumphs.
But for as much as those choices came from me, they also came from so many, many people around me. And without them, without the presence of so many in my heart and my past and my present, I wouldn’t be looking at the world from the same place anymore.
As the song says, “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”
The base inside myself changes for lots of reasons, from learning, from experience, from pain, from success — and from what I have gained from a hundred people passing through. Some came and left, some tore their way in and left a gaping hole on the way out, and some would not remember me or their impact upon me (but it happened to me regardless).
My whole life has been rewritten by the people who came and cast stones and songs into my spirit.
Without being bullied as a child, would I have spent so much time reading? So much time dreaming? So much time understanding the quiet voice inside myself? Without the friends that I had in and out through the years, would I have learned to be a friend when it really mattered? Without the random encounters, the unexpected moments of kindness or pain, would I have understood compassion without agenda?
I owe so many debts to people whose names I don’t even know. The group of my peers, four or five men and women of color who sat me down and explained my privilege to me, when they didn’t have to, when I was just another clueless, well-meaning white kid with blinders. The woman who came up to me after my first solo when I was 8 years old and told me never to stop singing, no matter who listened. The first fans who left me comments on my stories before I had the courage to reply to them and turn fans into friends.
And the network expands from there — the people who changed Sarah and set her feet on a path that led to me. The people who were kind to the family I have now, the encounters and chance moments that gave strength and joy to those I love. The ripples analogy is overdone, but accurate nonetheless. There are quantum ripples, flashes of fate and randomness and human agency that redefine a life, or a moment. And every one of those ended with me sitting in this moment in this life.
It is a debt to life that nobody can repay, isn’t it? It’s an accident that we’re born at all and that we become who we are. The good things that come after that are blessings.
At this moment in time, there’s only a handful of people who read this blog, and I can name you all, I think. So this is a luxury, one I can enjoy here in my quiet corner —
Thank you. Thank you for stepping into my life and changing me for good.
Great or small, profound or simple, whatever the impact you had on me, I can never go back to who I was before you appeared. And I could never want to go back, not having seen the view from here.
I do believe I have been changed for the better because I knew you.
And to anyone out there who never finds this blog, whatever we were to each other, I still put this into the internet void for you, too, just in case. Because if you gave my life a push, the least I can do is leave you a wish of my own. I believe that we can put good into the wheel of the universe even if there’s no empirical evidence for it. That what we give to the turn of space and time and eternity and destiny comes from us, even if no one ever sees it, or knows it is there. Love and kindness and good wishes and healing energy and a tiny quantum nudge all play into what we leave behind in the balance of life.
To everyone who had a part to play in helping me find my way —
May a skybird leave you a seed that brings you joy and peace. Thank you for changing me for good.