For much of this week I’ve had the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” stuck in my head, the melody and lyrics wending in and out of consciousness. I’m prone to earworms, and I sometimes wake up with a song in my head that I haven’t heard in years as if someone pushed a random set of buttons into my mental jukebox. Memory is strange: how can I call up at random the lyrics and melodies of countless pop songs while struggling to remember names, phone numbers, or my own grocery list?
As earworms go, I could do far worse than have the Beach Boys stuck in my head. I remember being amazed the first time I heard “God Only Knows”: the melody is simultaneously surprising and simple, with every note in its perfect place. I can’t imagine how someone writes a melody like “God Only Knows.” It’s a sequence of notes and a progression of chords I can’t see myself ever inventing, even at the end of a lifetime of humming…and yet the first time I heard “God Only Knows,” I couldn’t believe the earth managed to turn on its axis all the eons before that melody was known.
When long-time Boston mayor Tom Menino left the hospital last year after a string of health problems, reporters asked him about his future plans, and he answered with a remark that made front page headlines: “God only knows.” Menino has since stepped down as mayor, and this past week he announced he’s battling advanced cancer, his doctors being unable to determine where the metastasized cells originated from.
When asked by his disciples whether God exists, the Buddha famously refused to answer, claiming that asking about God is like pondering the nature, maker, or trajectory of an arrow that has mortally injured a man. As a man lies dying, does it matter who we might blame? If God exists, he alone knows when and where Menino’s cancer came from, or where Flight 370 is, or what our own futures hold…but even if God doesn’t know, what does it matter? Once you’ve been shot by mortality, you can’t be saved by speculation. We tell ourselves that knowing will bring comfort and closure, but does it, really?
On Wednesday night, I went to the Zen Center after too many weeks away from my cushion. Why is it I avoid a practice I need so desperately, my entire being falling into grateful exhaustion the moment I simply stop? God only knows.
Whenever I drive to the Zen Center, I pass the Cambridge gas station where the 26-year-old man carjacked by the Tsarnaev brothers last April finally escaped to freedom: a tale as haunting as any Beach Boys tune. “Death is so close to me,” the carjack victim, identified only as “Danny” in news reports, recalled thinking: “I don’t want to die….I have a lot of dreams that haven’t come true yet.”
I think of “Danny” every time I pass the pair of gas stations at the corner of River Street and Memorial Drive, where he bolted from his car after the Tsarnaev brothers ordered him to stop for gas. By what accident of fate or chance was it “Danny” who was carjacked at gunpoint and not you or me? On any given night on our way from Here to There, what are the chances we’ll fall victim to cancer, carjacking, or a wayward jet randomly falling out of the sky?
God only knows what the future holds; God only knows what the next moment may bring. If I can’t understand the working of my own memory and the way it holds, retrieves, and replays snippets of a song I haven’t heard in years, how can I fathom to guess what tomorrow, the next day, or the next might offer, the path of our lives being as random and haunting as any unforgettable tune.