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When the citizens of a town in Italy, quarantined in their homes against terrifying contagion, recently came onto their balconies to sing to one another or maybe to themselves, the world sighed. For me, images of evenings spent with my family by a campfire or singing on a bus with friends came flooding out of memory. I was a member of a touring choir in college, and the hours we spent on our rickety old bus belting out songs before we arrived at our concert destination were some of our happiest moments. Time, weariness, and discomfort slipped away as we spilled the joy that sprang from the depths of our hearts. I wasn’t a great singer. When a girl from my dorm asked if I would sing at her wedding, I told her I’d be glad to if I could bring the echo chamber of our group shower room (designed for a men’s dorm) that made me sound proficient. I sang when I was alone in the shower because I could. Singing softened the hard lessons of growing up.
There’s a reason naturally talented singers enjoy karaoke. Singing with or at the same time as others cements our commonality. Many families sing together. Singing comes from a part of our brains that’s resistant to Alzheimer’s because it’s separate from thinking. Music is primitive and powerful. The singing competitions on TV are entertaining, but they distract us from the truth that you don’t have to be good at singing or dancing or playing instruments to enjoy benefits. They are parts of our human heritage, parts that have sustained people through hard times and helped them celebrate being alive for millennia.
The singing of the besieged Italians also emphasized their rejection of loneliness and fear. It reminded them of their ability to control any situation by the way they react to it—an ability we all share. When we turn to singing, dancing, art, or even electronic conversation while we’re cut off from physical proximity, we celebrate. We remember that civilizations rise and fall, but what cannot be taken from us is this moment. We can despair over what we think we’ve lost in these times, or we can enjoy the unusual perspectives we’re given. For once, we can’t plan to run away from the problem to some other neighborhood or town or country. When being with small children nonstop starts feeling suffocating, wonder why. What is it we have forgotten about working with children that made their company fun? What is it we have neglected to teach them about being sensitive to the needs of others? When we grow depressed by our own company, what skills have we neglected to develop in ourselves?
I remember when Hurricane Katrina eliminated entire neighborhoods and I wondered how did those people cope with losing all that they depended upon—family members, homes, neighbors, local shopping, places of worship? Not toilet paper but ways of life. What helped some to rebuild better lives and led others to fail? We choose how we react. We demonstrate our strength to others. We sing or we moan.