It’s time for another Twenty One Pilots reflection. So much of their music is about the inner struggles of the mind — struggles with temptation, depression, isolation, even suicidal thoughts. Their lyrics are radically honest, are willing to venture into the darkest places and are profoundly in touch with the zeitgeist of our U.S. youth culture. Their message is always in the end one of honesty and hope, of knowing that you are never alone even in your darkest inner struggles. The presence of faith threads through their songs, though it’s always subtle and finds its way very naturally into the dynamics of human existence.
The song I would like to feature today is Migraine. It’s a song about the violent “wars” that can at times plague the mind, faced with depressive or suicidal thoughts that spring from a sense of isolation. Toward the end of the song, he sings:
And I will say that we should take a day to break away
From all the pain our brain has made, the game is not played alone.
And I will say that we should take a moment and hold it
And keep it frozen and know that life has a hopeful undertone.
This is a call for the disconsolate soul to retreat and go to a place apart to find freedom from the pain of her inner struggles (“take a day to break away”). There, from that safe space, she should “take a moment and hold it and keep it frozen,” conserving within her the fundamental reality of hope. To retreat for a time from the mental war, capture a thought full of hope and seize on it is to “kill the mind” possessed by shadows — in order to liberate it. The real genius I see in this song is its starkly honest confrontation of the dark war within, as well as its call to respond not by a direct attack but by turning instead to the light and hope that have power to lead us back to life and empower us to persevere (“we’ve made it this far, kid”). Of course, in the full light of faith that hope and light come from God-with-us. We’re not alone.
To augment this message, I include here also an excerpt from a transcript of an extemporaneous talk by Fr. Tom Hopko I’ve posted before. It’s on how one is to deal with painful or dark thoughts and memories and feelings. Then below Fr. Tom I will post Migraine.
Here, the holy Fathers would say—I think they would say, pretty much, the following. They would say: strive to be awake and to be vigilant. Strive to be aware of what’s going on. Don’t try to repress and suppress these feelings by will-power or exertion of your own human effort. You will fail. You will be crushed. But the minute those thoughts and the memories and the feelings hit you, flee to the Lord! Call upon the name of the Lord. Say the prayer of Jesus. Elder Porphyrios, one modern Greek elder, he even went so far as to say, “When they strike you, don’t even pray against them. Don’t pray against them. That gives them too much power. When you think about the temptations and the sins and the memories, you foment them.” That’s the English translation of his writings that I read. “You foment.” I guess that means you give them power. You give them a certain control over you. So Porphyrios would say, “Don’t give in at all. Flee to the light. Flee to the good.” And that’s a classical teaching.
I already quoted John Climacus who said, “Don’t dialogue with it. Don’t pick it up. Don’t engage it.” That would be a technical term, because the holy Fathers teach us that when we have these predispositions and we have these temptations, sometimes they’re called “provocation”: prosvoloi, but provocations come. Then what we must never do is engage them. We have to flee from them to God and not engage them. And there’s even a technical term for that in the Greek writing, The Philokalia writing. They call it “coupling” or “joining.” If you join it, if you couple with it, if you accept it, if you let it into you, and certainly if you nurture and cultivate it, if you keep sitting there watching the stupid TV program or the stupid computer or you keep drinking the drink or something, or taking the drug, then of course you just become impassioned and you become possessed and you become enslaved.
But the warfare is all about not taking the first drink, so to speak. And sometimes, we used to say at St. Vladimir’s when I worked there, the same way an alcoholic cannot take the first drink, a Christian cannot take the first think. You can’t take the first thought. You can’t engage the thought. You let it go; you let it go; you let it go again. You let it go again and again. As the recovery movement says, “You let go and you let God.” You let go of that and you turn to God, but you do not couple, because if you join and couple with it then you have what the holy Fathers call “synkatathesis” — assent. You actually give assent to it. You not only do not resist it, but worse — you assent to it. You affirm it. You receive it. You nurture it. You act out on it. And every time you act out on it, you give it more power and more strength.
But the key thing here is, number one: know that these things are there. Number two: know that they’re going to be there. Number three: know that your warfare is not to accept them, and know that the whole battle is in not taking the first step. The battle is in not engaging the trial and temptation when it comes. And then the next thing would be to know: you cannot withstand it by will-power. You’ve got to flee to the good. You’ve got to flee to God. And you’ve got to know that you’re going to lose some battles, if you’re going to conquer in Christ and win the war. There will be battles that are lost. So you’ve got to know not to despair. You’ve got to know to keep up the struggle.