For the last several days, I’ve been trying to think of a viable subject other than the Charleston, S.C., church shooting. 

But splitting hairs on what is and is not legitimate country music just doesn’t seem as important while a fellow Southern city is trying to find some sense of healing after such a terrible tragedy. We live in one of the safest times in American history, yet we still have more mass shootings than any other advanced, educated society in the world. Racism, a culture of violence, and an age of anti-intellectualism are all being debated, as they should. But this column is about how life and the human experience intersect and are ultimately influenced by culture and art. 

In today’s times, we make the mistake of viewing arts and storytelling only as mindless entertainment, when in fact, they’ve been one of the most important factors in human social evolution that allow us to see past our animalistic urges and live peacefully among people who are different from us. 

For thousands of years, narratives have allowed us to cultivate our own empathy and see people within the context of being human, as opposed to focusing on our basic urges of tribalism or the slightly larger nationalism. Words can take you into the inner being of another person to connect and understand their strengths and weaknesses, their fears and insecurities, and their desire to be accepted by those around them. As we connect through art and narrative, we strengthen our ability to connect in life. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read was Steinbeck’s description of Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath.” 

“She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials... She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.”

How many of us read that and felt like they had a deeper understanding of what it meant to be a mother through desperate times? It’s just a story, yet it strikes us to our cores and forces us to ask ourselves, “Could we be that strong for our family? Could we survive those times with a show of strength and grace?” 

Steinbeck has the ability to grow our understanding of what it means to be human — to experience the world through another’s eyes and feel larger than our single selves. 

We are now beginning to hear stories about the lives of the victims in Charleston, and we won’t immediately recognize the differences that might be more apparent in everyday situations. No, instead we’ll see our commonalities. We’ll see grandmothers, grandfathers, friends, sons, daughters and parents. We’ll see people who wanted to make their communities better. 

Those things will come into focus first as we recognize them in ourselves. Through tragedy we find commonality. We find a stronger sense of unity. We may even find some political will to make some institutionalized changes.

I present no solutions or answers here, only observations of what brings us together in communities, nations and as people of the human race. I deeply believe in music, arts and humanities. I find in them both solitude and connection. I find shared love and understood sorrow. I recognize my sense of belonging to both a massive human race and a beautifully diverse Southern culture. I believe that a society that openly enjoys and supports emotional connections through art and music will always be stronger for it. 


Brian Paul Swenk writes for The Mountain TimesBluegrass Today and his own blog, The Lonesome Banjo Chronicles. He plays banjo in the North Carolina-based band, Big Daddy Love, and is an App State graduate with a music industries degree through the Interdisciplinary Studies program.

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