Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: How Music Helps Us Rise when All We Want to Do Is Quit

There’s more than enough anxiety to go around these days and plenty of places to place the blame.  Plenty of sin, plenty of harm, plenty of reasons to disengage.  Or just give up.

A little thing just about tipped me this morning because it arrived after a series of sadnesses and frustrations big and small.  Normal family struggles.  Enormous disappointments in the news, so full of red/blue insanity and revelations of misconduct within my beloved Church (or rather, some of the churchmen in my beloved Church).  Challenges a dear friend is bravely enduring. The tragic choices of some young adults I’ve known and loved since they were preschoolers.

Music Helps Our Spirits RiseAnd then this small, ridiculous thing.  I had just revised Flight Fuel: an Eclectic Playlist of Hope, the offering I send to anyone who joins my email list.

I sent a new link to all current subscribers.  When I opened my own copy, I noticed that even though I’d proofread the letter and sent a test to myself to doublecheck it, it contained a duplicated content block, a glaring goof-up.

Well, I thought, I’ll just send it out again, and I’ll add an additional cheering piece of content to make it worth any reader’s while.  And after the revised letter went out, I discovered I’d linked back to the old playlist, not the new one.   Silly.  Stupid, and oh so human.

So I allowed myself a distraction by checking my email, and I was greeted with more bad news in my inbox. I was seriously tempted to waste my scheduled work time and just shut down.

But before I did, I decided to try practicing what I preach.

I took a prayerful breath and gave my  playlist a listen while fixing the problem with an extremely brief re-send of the Flight Fuel link.  And guess what?  My spirits began to rise.

The Journal of Positive Psychology published a study about five years back showing (if you need evidence) that music can improve your mood.  In fact, people who listened to 12 minutes of upbeat tunes with the intent of improving mood, measurably elevated their positivity above those who listened without the intent of an uplift.

The uplift does not change our circumstances; it does change how we deal with them.

I once wrote a post called Pollyanna vs. Curmudgeon: the Case for Realistic Optimism and the cool thing was I heard from more than one self-identified curmudgeon who pretty much agreed with me that although maintaining an optimistic outlook is difficult, it’s essential to engage the struggle.

Jill PhillipsSo if music lifts the mood, then by jove let’s turn on the tunes. New ideas emerge once our mood lifts.  We figure out what to do to move forward.  That leads to perseverance or grit.  And grit is a critical resilience factor.

Flight Fuel begins with Jill Phillips’ rousing blues rendition of the old spiritual, Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.

Paul and Silas bound in jail
Had no money for to go their bail
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

This song comes out of the black churches of the South.  They have something to say about how music can help you survive.  They know a lot more than most of us do about suffering and resilience. Listen to Pete Seeger describe his discovery of the same song.  I also love Bruce Springsteen’s gritty rendition of Keep Your Eyes on the Prize on We Shall Overcome:  The Seeger Sessions.

Springsteen_the Seeger SessionsIn all, Flight Fuel gathers 33 songs from somber to toe-tapping, each one a positive response to human pain and struggle.

The playlist is an eclectic mix that includes Springsteen, Toad the Wet Sprocket (remember them?), Rich Mullins, Alana Boudreau and Matt Maher.  And Andrew Peterson’s In the Night, the song that inspired me to create Flight Fuel.

It includes The Collection’s “Beautiful Life,” an absolute gem of a song that never fails to lift my spirits. Its opening line is from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,” and the video is work of sheer beauty.  If you need a lift right now, take a moment and take this in:

I agree with indie singer/songwriter Kevin Heider, who says in his interview with The Collection’s David Wimbish that he could begin and end every day with this beautiful song.  (I never miss an episode of Heider’s Song & Story podcast.  It’s where I first heard “Beautiful Life” as well as Michelle Mandico’s “Water Bearer,” another of Flight Fuel’s songs.)

It only took two songs and I’d changed my mind about blowing off my work hour.

I made a couple of other decisions, too.  Call my friend who’s hurting.  Pray for the young adults who have me worried.  Write a thank you to the good priests who’ve helped me on my path to Christ, who are no doubt more injured by scandal than I will ever be.

I’ll tell those faithful warriors, and every pastor with a “hand on the gospel plough,” every little soul depressed about the red/blue anger in this country and every other “sparrow” reading this, from whatever twig you’re gripping: 

Keep your eyes on the prize: hold on.


Reads & Other Seeds

Sparrowfare reviews two podcasts that have bolstered my hope and refilled my iPod.  See Music, Meaning and a Piece of Maria:  How the Song & Story Podcast Can Fill the Music Void You Didn’t Know You Had and Recover Your Optimism with the Love Good Podcast.

What are your go-to tunes when you need a lift?  Let me know in the comments or email  I’m always looking for new music, which is why I love the above podcasts.  Where have you been finding new favorites?  I’d love to hear from you.

Access Flight Fuel by subscribing to Sparrowfare’s email list here.

The Gospel of HappinessNeed a quick take on growing your own resilience?  I recommend The Resilience Factor:  Seven Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles by Karen Reivich, and Chris Kaczor’s The Gospel of Happiness:  Rediscover Your Faith through Spiritual Practice and Positive Psychology.  He is interviewed by Kris McGregor on Discerning Heart’s Inside the Pages here.

Photos by Alex WiganTravis Yewell and Alphacolor 13 on Unsplash.


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