The sweet spot


“The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.” Proverbs 11:3

There’s this sweet spot on the oboe, that when found, the sound has deep resonance. My teachers taught me how to search for it, and now I spend my days helping others find it too. When the right reed, instrument, and embouchure combination come together and the player finds *just* the right angle at which to hold the instrument, the sound opens up and rings. When this happens, there’s no falsehood in the pitch or the tone, just a beautiful purity and clarity. And here’s the amazing thing: whenever you find the sweet spot, the sound you make is still completely unique and individual to you as a player. The sweet spot is where your voice sings in its truest sense. It’s a difficult thing to describe to students who’ve never experienced it. The best analogy I could come up with is the image of a jack-o-lantern: when you’re playing in the sweet spot, you can suddenly feel sound pouring out of every hole in your head, like light from a pumpkin lit from within. It’s interesting as a teacher to watch students’ eyes widen with clarity as this finally happens. I always tell them, “You’ll know it when you feel it.”

Lately, I’ve been wondering if life has a sweet spot, too.

After years of living a crazy-busy, coffee-fueled, anxious lifestyle, I am starting to think that I am not currently living my life with any sustainable resonance, if such a thing is possible. Maybe it’s having a young child or being out in the work force for a few years now... I seem to have lost my right-out-of-college freelance musician hustle. I just feel I can no longer take the ebb and flow of the pesky anxiety that always seems to find me, like a gray cloud on an otherwise sunny day, or that inexplicable sadness that seems just around the corner, even though nothing is really wrong. It keeps me worrying so I can’t enjoy the things that are wonderful. The constant and frantic movement to the next thing...and the next... makes it impossible to enjoy any particular moment. Can you relate?

It is tricky to pinpoint how or where it began. There was no specific moment where I remember these feelings starting, in some ways I wonder if I’ve always been this way, even since childhood. I do know one thing: the world seems to value this break-neck tempo, this harder-faster-better mentality, especially here in America. I know for myself it is hard to get off the merry-go-round because of how good I feel when I am able to juggle everything successfully (albeit tired.)

There’s something addictive about being busy. When my mind is fully occupied it means I don’t have time to sit with things that are uncomfortable or to really look closely at my life. “I’m sorry I don’t have time” is the best excuse there is, because it allows us to seem really busy and important, while avoiding the little lies we are telling ourselves and others. I suppose, “I’m sorry I will not make time for that,” is more accurate. We make an idol out of being perceived as busy, accomplished, in-demand, and successful, especially as artists... but at what cost? What do we lose when we fill every empty space in our life with more and more, even good things? What if the only way to be creative means to, first and foremost, be bored?

This week, in light of these feelings, I’ve been thinking about the above proverb about integrity, but not in the way that you may think. 

I wonder if instead of the traditional definition of integrity that we use: “adherence to moral and ethical principles,” it would be more useful to consider the other two definitions listed here: “the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished” or “a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition.”

Maybe being a person of integrity means more than being moral. Maybe it also means being integrated—a person of wholeness and of a sound condition—someone who’s life resonates in the sweet spot.

If I ask myself if I am integrated, I’m not sure I could answer in the positive. In fact, I know I am not. If I was, I wouldn’t find myself buying things I don’t need or throwing away food I don’t eat. It would mean I could play with my toddler without feeling anxious about all the emails I should be writing. Being a person of integrity or wholeness would mean saying no to opportunities that are not right for me, even if they will bring in more money or accolades (or first, doing the self-reflection to figure out what those right things are), spending more time feeling grateful and less time feeling worried, resisting the temptation to fill all the empty space—to leave it for thinking, reflecting, and just letting my mind wander. It would mean ending relationships that feel toxic and energy-zapping. In short, it would mean checking everything I do, everything I buy, everything I say, against that that has my life resonating deeply. It would mean exactly what the proverb tells us—that when we are guided by this kind of integrity we flourish; while if we continue in the scattered, crooked, impaired, and diminished existence we are living in now, we will eventually destroy ourselves.

It’s so easy to read the Bible like it’s a collection of cautionary tales or, even worse, a rule book. When Jesus said “You are the light of the world,” what if he meant we each carry with us something special, that, when we can let it resonate, can be a light by which others find their way through the world? What if it’s about being more than what our Sunday school teachers told us about being moral, but also being whole, being of sound and resonant body and mind? In other words, maybe integrity is about finding our sweet spot and letting the light shine from there.

If this is the kind of life we are searching for, then let Jesus be our example. He knew when it was time to retreat into the wilderness to pray. He knew when to work hard and when to rest. He sat fully present around a table with friends even though he knew he would soon die. He was full of joy and mirth, and yet we see his heart breaking for all that was and is wrong in the world. He loved deeply. He was willing to die for the truth, and this integrity made his life resonate deeply through all time and eternity. His light shined as brightly as the sun. He was integrated, whole, undiminished, and perfect, and it’s because of him that we can be perfected too.

Playing outside of the sweet spot on oboe is certainly possible, just like living with this crippling chaos and overwhelming busyness is possible (and all too common.) But if life’s sweet spot is anything like the oboe’s, then when we find it, it will mean all we are gaining is fair greater than anything we are giving up. It will mean finding our voice and never wanting to turn back.

Living with this type of integrity would not mean assimilating to any old ideal, but living into our own unique and personal sense of moving through the world, a way that resonates with who we were each created to be, a way that lights us up. Any other way and we fall short of truly experiencing what it is to let the light pour from within us, and that’s no way to play the oboe or to live. I only pray we will know it when we feel it.