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When Soul Meets Body
The Secret Chord Podcast on Death Cab For Cutie
This episode explores the relationship between the physical and spiritual parts of a human being and how to most effectively use them. To listen, click here.
Hello folks, and welcome to episode 34 of the Secret Chord podcast. I'm excited to go in a slightly different direction this week and present the Indie Band Death Cab for Cutie. So I don't know if you've heard of them, but they're a very popular band. They're an American alternative rock band who are formed in Bellingham, Washington. In 1997, the band was originally a solo project by lead, singer, and guitarist Ben Gibbard. And upon getting a record deal, he expanded the project into a complete band, which released a debut album called Something About Airplanes back in 1998. The Group's fourth album, 2003’s, “Transatlanticism” broke into the mainstream, both critically and commercially, with songs from the album featured in numerous TV series and films.
The band's major label debut for Atlantic Records 2005’s “Plans” went platinum. And their ninth Studio album, “Thank You for Today”, was released in August of 2018. So obviously, the group has a bit of a strange name, and if you're wondering where it came from, it came from a song called Death Cab for Cutie, which was written by a group called Bonzo Dog Duo Band, also a strange name, which was originally performed on the British television show Do Not Adjust Your Sets as well as the Beatles movie Magical Mystery Tour in case we've ever seen that. So Death Cab for Cutie is known for its unconventional instrumentation and for Gibbard s distinct voice and lyrical style. They're also unafraid to tackle theological issues head-on, which I love.
So let's check out an example of that. This is “I'll Follow You Into The Dark” by the great Death Cab for Cutie.
So Rolling Stone Magazine described the band's output as melodic, melancholic songs about feeling both smart and confused. Hopelessly romantic but wary of love. The indie lullabies here, ostensibly about a long-distance relationship, are both tuneful and rough-edged. With singer Ben Gibbard, plaintiff boy, next door voice, wafting delicately over crunchy guitars, piano, and random percussion. It feels like a conversation with an old friend.
Now this song seems like a simple Diddy that a guy might sing to his high school sweetheart, but I think it's deeper than that. Following your love into the darkness seems to me the root of all spiritual contemplation and yearning love and death go hand in hand as two mysteries that humanity is constantly processing. One represents light, though is often fraught with its own darkness, and the other is a black hole of unknowableness.
I've argued before that love is not a physical thing and, indeed, is the only tangible link to the other side that we possess. So Ben's willingness to go there if that's where his beloved is to be found is something that we can all relate to. And though it may not always seem like it, he's correct in saying that we're all close behind to those who went first. I love songs with profound ideas wrapped up in a simple package like this. Reflecting on the writing process, Ben has said “that being the writer of any kind of discipline is kind of like being a magician. You're defying the laws of physics; there's nothing there. And then there is something there that defies the first law of physics. So in that sense, maybe there is something spiritual about the process of writing in general.”
He's referring to Newton's first law of motion, which states that an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless it is acted upon by an unbalanced force. What is the unbalanced force that allows for musical creation? Where does it come from in Kaballistic thought? It's called “Yesh Meayin”—the idea that some things can indeed arise out of nothing or at least what appears to be nothing. Now let's hear our main feature for today. This is off of their 2007 album Catch and Release, and it's called Soul Meets Body.
I just love that. The song has been described as having a "haunting, slow drawl," and that features such as its "jangling acoustic guitar strumming throughout, and a wonderfully upbeat rhythm accompanying lyrics of loss and wonderment" give the song a "distinct" resemblance to REM's song, "Losing My Religion" (which btw, is not actually about becoming irreligious). Drowned in Sound writer Mike Diver stated that "Soul Meets Body" has "tender, lovelorn lyrics that anyone over the age of ten can relate to coupled with the kind of shimmering indie-pop that a thousand imitators have failed to fully master.”
Humanity has been wrestling with the issue of the relationship between the body and soul for centuries, and the modern version of the argument goes back at least 400 years to Descartes. It’s also been a staple of popular culture for a long time. Check out this 1930 recording of Body and Soul by Libby Holman (1:00-1:27):
So assuming that the soul exists (as I do), just how is a non-material force related to a material one? How does the soul get the body to do what it wants? In a certain sense, every time we will something (the will being a function of the soul) and compel the body to respond, we are (knowingly or unknowingly) interfacing with the transcendent. Here’s an example:
Ben took up running ultra-marathons (50-100 mile races), partially in response to the alcoholism that he struggled with as a touring musician. For him, pushing the limits of his body became a transcendental experience:
Running, for me, is very much a spiritual practice at this point. I certainly don't think that you need to run as far as I do to achieve a level of enlightenment. But I have found when I've been deep into an ultra marathon, there is inevitably a moment where everything falls away, and I'm just a being in space. Just moving through the world. Moving through this beautiful environment on a trail on a mountain somewhere and all the concerns that you might have about anything in your life just disappear, and you have these moments of just flow and Zen that people achieve them in myriad ways. People do yoga. People take psychedelics. People run. People fast. People sweat it out, whatever. But this has just been something that I've found has been a very real spiritual practice in my life.
That ability to get out of your own way and live in the moment is key. Its ability to humble a person is another, as he said of his running:
“There’s no way to be cocky. Because you’re gonna get got. You're gonna get humbled.” Humility is an absolute prerequisite to the authentic spiritual experience. Arrogant people have a hard time seeing anything beyond themselves.
That’s one example of the body meeting the soul. Obviously, that’s something that he deeply craves. I think everyone does.
I want to live where soul meets body
And let the sun wrap its arms around me and
Bathe my skin in water cool and cleansing
Feel what it's like to be new
'Cause in my head, there's a Greyhound station
Where I send my thoughts to far-off destinations
So they may have a chance of finding a place where they're
Far more suited than here
Most of us have had the experience of a shift in identity before. Going from a middle schooler to a high schooler is a shift in identity—one that comes with a new status, new rules, and a new way to think about oneself. For many, getting married is a very big change of identity—whereas single folks have much freer schedules and much more control over their decision-making. When you’re married, you change. You quickly realize that the old habits won’t work— that there is someone else with her own set of values and expectations. Obviously, if someone is unable to make this shift and continues on his merry single ways, the relationship won’t last long, but if he does, he begins to grow as a person—he has expanded to encompass something that’s beyond just himself. It’s a step onto a new road.
So too, must we all endeavor to shift our identities from a wholly physical entity (that may or may not have a spiritual essence) to one of being a spiritual essence (a soul) that happens to have a body as a garment—one that inevitably wears out and will eventually be discarded. Until then, we all do indeed live “where soul meets body.” One way or another, we will all end up making this shift in consciousness. Making the choice earlier and on our own terms can only serve to vastly improve the quality of our inner and outer worlds.