The secret of life. We all wonder what it really is. Some of us come up with an answer— right or wrong. Some of us don’t. Retired editor and writer Alan Paul of Hawthorne, New Jersey, looks for his answer in music. And for him, anyway, sometimes he finds it.
I read something recently about two handwritten notes from Albert Einstein which were put up last year for auction. That the notes did sell for nearly $2 million is pretty amazing, but the story of the notes and what was written on them is even more valuable.
Apparently, Einstein was on a speaking tour of Tokyo in 1922 when a courier delivered a message at his hotel. The story goes that the maestro had no spare change, and was upset that he could not tip the courier. Instead, he bade the young man wait a moment, and began scribbling what turned out to be life advice on two sheets of hotel stationary.
On the first he wrote, “A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.” And on the second he quickly scratched, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” He handed both notes to the man, reportedly saying, “Maybe if you’re lucky those notes will become much more valuable than just a regular tip.” And they certainly did to the seller, who was a relative of the courier in the story.
Einstein is mentioned in one of my favorite James Taylor songs, “The Secret of Life.” (I believe the actual title is “Secret O’ Life.”) The third verse speaks about the elusive nature of time, which, rather than being constant, is actually a product of one’s perspective in this vast universe, wherein humankind occupies only the tiniest fragment-of-a-fragment of a percentage point.
One line, referencing the infinite complexities of time and space, goes, “Einstein said he could never understand it all. Planets spinning through space, the smile upon your face, welcome to the human race.”
I don’t know if “Secret O’ Life” is a great song; the chord structure is simple enough that even a neophyte guitarist like me can play it, and James Taylor probably wouldn’t rank the lyrics among his best. But there is something about this song— a catchy melody and deceptively simple poetics aside— that grabs me. I never tire of hearing it or, (perish the thought), singing it. Listening to it invariably elevates my mood.
“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time,” the artist says. “The secret of love is in opening up your heart.” And, “The thing about time is that time isn’t really real.” James Taylor says of life, “Isn’t it a lovely ride? Sliding down, gliding down. Try not to try too hard. It’s just a lovely ride.”
All in all, it’s a pretty elegant and straightforward formula for getting the most out of one’s life. “Any fool can do it; there ain’t nothin’ to it.”
Bobby McFerrin said it somewhat less poetically: “Don’t worry, be happy.” Thankfully it doesn’t take an Einstein to figure it all out.