The summer after ninth grade, I traveled with a humanitarian group on a trip to Kenya to build a library for poor orphaned schoolchildren. The three weeks I spent there were possibly the most depressing of my entire life.
The central cause of my depression at that time was that I had chosen to bring, at the suggestion of my older sister, a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as my reading material for the plane ride to Africa. Which is not really a depressing book, I suppose, at least not in the conventional sense, unless you happen to have just dedicated three weeks of your summer and six months’ worth of savings to helping poor orphaned children build a school in the middle of Africa. If this is the case, then it may very well be depressing, given that the characters say a lot of things like “Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetrated by disciples of altruism?”
I remember lying under my mosquito net at nights, my 15-year-old soul in anguished torment as I grappled with the issue of whether I, in trying to do service for needy Africans, was only perpetuating the hateful morality of Death. I would be lying there when my group leader, Susan, would stop by in the mornings to see if I was feeling OK.
SUSAN: Dave, we were wondering why you weren’t coming to breakfast. Did you spend too much time out under the sun yesterday?
ME: As if. I am merely protesting the futile sacrifice of your spirits to a god of self-immolation.
SUSAN: Right—well, if you want to come get some breakfast, I’ll just leave you a plate over on the table.
ME: What do you take me for, a leech? Nay, I would rather die than partake of your hate-inspired slurry.
In the end, I did go eat some breakfast. But this didn’t change that I was hardly enthusiastic about the work I was supposed to be doing. I was honestly very disturbed by what I had read. It was the worst at nights, when I felt the most homesick and culture-shocked. It was then, sweating in my underwear and swatting mosquitoes, that I took out my CD player and headphones and set Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto to repeat.
The most beautiful and most heartbreaking moment in all recorded music occurs approximately one minute and 36 seconds into the second movement. In that moment, a soft descending piano backed by sustained strings, Mr. Beethoven seems to have captured all that is beautiful and tragic about what it is to be a human being. Don’t listen to it in public unless you are prepared to cry like a baby. It was there in my bed, with tears pooling on my pillow, that I realized that if something so perfect could exist, then the world must be worth living for.
I have no idea what Beethoven would have thought about The Fountainhead, but to me that seems beside the point. What mattered to me at the time was, I could listen to that piece of music and feel that I wasn’t alone, and for some reason it helped me to get through my crisis of self-doubt, or whatever you want to call it. If I were better at sorting through abstract thoughts, I might come up with a theory about how the appreciation of beautiful music can allow an immature mind to consider something larger than itself, and how this in some way rebuts the basic premises of Rand’s philosophy. But I prefer to continue thinking of it in the mystical sense: I like to believe that in 1803 Beethoven sat down and wrote a passage of music with the specific purpose of reaching me nearly 200 years later.