I Don't Wanna Live Like This, But I Don't Wanna Die
I go through these seasons when I listen to an album over and over again. Eventually those songs become intertwined with specific eras in my life. Since high school, there have been about a dozen or so of these kind of albums. In the Fall of 2013, that album was Vampire Weekend’s excellent (and ridiculously named) third album Modern Vampires of the City.
It was a season in my life when I was agonizing over whether to continue on a path that I loved but was becoming increasingly unsustainable. The unease, discontent, and against-odds glimpses of hope in songs like “Unbelievers,” “Hannah Hunt,” “Ya Hey,” and others evoke that time in which I ultimately decided to stalk out into an unknown wilderness that eventually led me here.
Now nearly 6 years later, Vampire Weekend has released their followup Father of the Bride (I think they are intentionally trolling people with album titles). I don’t know if this collection of songs will join my pantheon of signpost albums. I was initially underwhelmed by it, but I have warmed up to it a bit more. A major reason why I’ve listened to this release enough for it to grow on me is because I’ve been obsessed with the second track of the album ever since I laid ears on it. Musically, “Harmony Hall” is gorgeous. It lights up all sorts of melodic receptors in my brain. When you marry that music to lyrics that simultaneously capture and haunt me it turns into one of those songs that I restart the second it begins to fade out.
Anger wants a voice
Voices wanna sing
Till they can’t hear anything
Thought that I was free
From all that questioning
But every time a problem ends
Another one begins
And the stone walls of Harmony Hall bear witness
Anybody with a worried mind
Can never forgive the sight
Of wicked snakes inside a place
You thought was dignified
I don’t wanna live like this
But I don’t wanna die
Six years ago those words would have hit me hard. And six years after all of that wrestling, I find those lyrics still resonating with me on a visceral level. There is a bit of deja vu to it all. The phrase “I don’t wanna live like this but I don’t wanna die” was the refrain to the song “Finger Back” on Modern Vampires. I listen to that soaring, scared chorus and I feel it in my bones.
There is still an anger in me that wants a voice but is worried it will drown everything out once it sings. I naively thought that moving past the more conservative church of my youth would quell some of my questioning. New problems replace old ones. My worried mind cannot forgive the wicked snakes that I have seen in the corridors of power both political (What’s up, 45?) and religious (Lots of folks, but special shout out this week to Jerry Falwell Jr.).
Then there is that resurrected line “I don’t wanna live like this but I don’t wanna die.” I know this wasn’t Ezra Koenig’s intention, but I don’t know if you can write a lyric that better captures the tension of being a follower of Jesus. Especially if you are a follower of Jesus who lives a life of relative privilege in the United States. It is not a constant tension. There are many things about the Christian life that bring hope and joy in beautiful ways. If you say that the line “I don’t wanna live like this but I don’t wanna die” resonates with you, people start checking in on you.
But there is this low hum unease that is in the background—a splinter in the soul—that says, “I could be doing this better. I could be giving to others more. I could definitely be speaking up more for others. I could be more prophetic.” I know that the way I am living is still not quite in line with what it means to follow Jesus. It’s the two sided coin of the gospel. It reminds me that I am loved more than I could possibly imagine; that there is incredible grace for me. Yet it also calls on me to live in ways that are difficult and shove me out of my comfort zone. So even though I am really happy with my life, there are still those disquieting moments where I find myself thinking “I don’t want to live like this.”
Ah…but I don’t wanna die. There’s the rub. I have a wife and kids and I want to care for them. I don’t want to risk that. It’s not as if I would immediately say or do something that would get me fired. I believe I am at a good church with good people. But there’s always that fear isn’t there? The fear that if you truly follow Jesus that all those things he says about sacrifice and taking up your cross would be true. After all, he is the one who said that “Anyone who wants to save their life will lose it. But anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Sacrifice is part of the deal. There is some kind of death in this. There is resurrection to be sure, but the dying has to be a part of that and it’s scary. I’ve experienced those little deaths here and there and even those truly minor ones are harrowing. Loretta Lynn once sang, “Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.” The refrain from “Harmony Hall” is the same idea seen through the lens that heaven is not just a place we go to in the afterlife.
The song resonates with me because it convicts me. And I hope the idea that I hear in “Harmony Hall” never stops convicting me. Not in an unhealthy kind of way that growls “You’ll never be good enough!” I hope it doesn’t stop convicting me because I don’t want to settle or convince myself that I am wholly following the way of Jesus when I’m not. I don’t wanna live like this but I don’t wanna die is the ever-present realization that I’m not yet there. It is where my desire to follow God collides with my very natural sense of self-preservation and comfort. I believe, help my unbelief. I am a saint and a sinner. It’s the already and the not yet. It’s part of the story. It pushes me. If I forget that tension I’m no longer following Jesus. I’m standing still.
Six years later, part of me thinks that “Harmony Hall” resonating would be demoralizing. I’m still angry about the things that I see? I’m still wrestling with questions and problems? I still feel like I’m not yet there? But I’m not. In a weird way it gives me hope. “I don’t wanna live like this but I don’t wanna die” is a sign of life. It shows that this following Jesus thing still means something to me. It’s still worth the struggle. I still care. I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die. I hope that God will take that realization and help me, step by step, to die and live the way I need to.