There is something about the gung-ho attitude of New Year’s Resolutions, writes Gavin Ashenden, that always fails to convince me
“People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing,” murmured Florence Foster Jenkins on her death bed. I’ve been watching a film of her story, and in turns slipping onto the floor laughing, and then reaching for the handkerchiefs as I cried.
Meryl Streep, herself an exceptionally gifted singer plays Florence in a recent film, who was perhaps the world’s worst singer. “No one, before or since,” wrote Stephen Pile the historian, “has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation.”
Ira Siff, the opera impresario wrote; “Jenkins was exquisitely bad, so bad that it added up to quite a good evening of theatre … They say Cole Porter had to bang his cane into his foot in order not to laugh out loud when she sang. She was that bad.” Still, Porter rarely missed a recital.
You laugh because she is so tremendously bad at singing; and you cry, because she doesn’t know it. And the reason she doesn’t know it is that she ran off with a man to marry him when young, and contracted Syphilis. So you cry some more. The Syphilis, combined with unkindness, was to kill her in the end, but in the meantime it interfered with her sense of pitch, so she couldn’t hear herself sing at all clearly.
In fact all good singers have to overcome this barrier. The way you hear yourself from inside your head is not at all what other people hear from outside your head. Much of the way you deal with pitch and resonance is done as much by feel, as much as by sound, and one of the side effects of Syphilis is to wreck this sense.
In October 1944, aged 76 she fatefully hired the Carnegie Hall to sing in public. The following morning the newspaper reviewers went to work.
The people who loved her managed to keep the awful truth of how bad she was from her, (spoiler alert) but one devastating review made it through their cordon sanitaire. “ “[Mrs. Jenkins] has a great voice,” wrote the New York Sun critic. “In fact, she can sing everything except notes ..”
Days later, she suffered a heart attack, and died.
The coming of the new year and the whole business of making resolutions made me think of Florence.
She never lacked resolution. But it was the affirmation that kept her going. There is something about the ‘gung ho’-ness of New Year’s resolutions that always fails to convince me. I’m not surprised to find that 92% of people who make them give up on them early. Somewhere deep down in the thought chain is the mistaken idea that we can make life better by trying harder.
There is nothing wrong with bringing resolution and courage to the new year, but life is precarious. And dealing with the death of friends, tragedy striking unexpectedly and bits of one’s body giving up, needs more than just well-gritted teeth.
I go on being very encouraged as psychiatry moves out of the dark shadow of Sigmund Freud, and increasingly recognises the link between good mental health and believing in God. The Royal College of Psychiatrists (Dr S. Dein 2013) makes a particular point of demonstrating how effective faith is at processing and managing adversity.
It’s this belief in God that offers the kind of affirmation for us that equips us best to deal with uncertainty, and even tragedy, as we face the future remembering the disturbing uncertainty of the past.
The writing of two Christian women in particular help me with this.
The first was one of the most intelligent Englishwoman of the Middle Ages, who had a series of astonishing visions of Christ,- Mother Julian of Norwich (in 1373). In one of her visions she saw the whole universe condensed into the size of a small ball held in God’s hand. She asked what exactly she was looking at?
‘It is all that is made.’ (God replied) I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: “It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.”
Throughout her visions she was taught that God could and would bring good out of evil and because of that there was no need for anxiety. Her motto and mantra became,
“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Looking forward to the uncertainty as well as the excitement of a new year, that kind of affirmation is just what I need to manage my more modest resolutions. One that appeals to me as being manageable comes from one of my other heroines, mother Teresa of Calcutta, who is famous for this:
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
With this reassurance that “all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” I think I can just about stretch to a resolution that I might manage; to do some of the small things with greater love.
Like Florence, they might say we couldn’t sing, but not that we didn’t try.