Tom Hanks won his first Academy Award for Best Actor in the movie Philadelphia as a lawyer with AIDS. You may recall the scene when he’s listening to a recording of "La Mamma Morta" from the opera Andrea Chénier. Transported by the heartbreaking beauty of the music, the camera followed him as he slowly spun around the room translating the text as it was sung. His own illness and the humiliating discrimination he suffered were seemingly forgotten while he listened to Maddalena describe how her mother had been killed and her house burned by the mob (not exactly the kind of music you would expect to cheer him up). Yet, she goes on to recount how, in that great sorrow, love came and consoled her.
The resiliency of the human spirit in the face of tragedy, expressed through the music and the text, comforted-even uplifted-him. Or rather than momentarily forgetting himself, perhaps he went even deeper into his own pain, to the very fountainhead of all human suffering. At a profoundly difficult time in his life, he found himself connected and consoled by the affecting, beautiful aria.
Some time later I found myself in a discussion regarding a new job a cousin had taken for a social service agency that provided housing for persons with AIDS. The implication was made that this demanding and critical job was more righteous or noble than whatever the rest of us were doing. Although I had to agree, remembering the scene from Philadelphia, I knew there was more to consider.
Everyone needs basic services, such as housing, food, health care, and adequate clothing. Those unable to obtain these essential requirements for survival, whether due to illness, misfortune, or whatever, should be provided for. I’m grateful we live in a society that, for the most part, tries to address these needs. Our various government jurisdictions can only do so much, though. To fill the gap, charitable organizations are allowed to function, exempt from taxes, serving a variety of those in need.
Our community is generous, especially towards the young, the ill, and victims of disaster. This is as it should be. Yet I believe there’s potential for greater benefits to all of society if we model our philanthropic giving after Phillip Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s theory for self-actualization is represented by a pyramid; basic needs (food, shelter, and clothing) must be met first. Moving beyond mere survival, we crave security, socialization, education, and spiritual understanding. The arts would be represented at the highest levels of the pyramid. And so with our charitable giving, we must contribute to the upper tiers of the pyramid, even though breadth may be lost as height is gained. Without the arts, we won’t starve, die of thirst, or freeze to death in the winter. But, as Mel Gibson said as William Wallace in the movie Braveheart "All men die; not all men live."
Tom Hanks’ character needed his job. He needed respect. And he needed opera. We don’t survive just to become survivors. We want to live life. We want to partake of all the richness life offers: be with our loved ones, witness and participate in events and activities that inspire and excite us, experience beauty and truth, be a part of those things that make life worthwhile. Thoreau said he wanted to suck the marrow out of life. That may mean different things to different people, but I know for me, the marrow of life is found in the great accomplishments of humanity: culture and art, music and literature.
In 1984 my mother died of breast cancer. Part of what she handed down to me is an increased risk of getting it. But the true legacy she left me was her great love of music. A decent amateur pianist, she made music a part of my life. Yes, I donate to the Race for the Cure and the Relay for Life because we must have better prevention, detection, and treatment options for cancer. But I give to the arts because, beyond basic survival, beyond health and even long life, the essence of our own humanity must be nurtured. Through the healing and transformative power of the arts, I feel closest to my mother when I’m hearing music she loved. I don’t want to memorialize how she suffered and died. I want to remember her how she lived.
Most people, who are able, give to health and human service organizations. I hope they continue to do so. But those of us who feel a need for greater meaning and higher purposes in life, I ask you to go beyond the bottom level of the pyramid. Commit yourself to supporting the arts. AA!