“Now and then you have some trouble, but when you worry, you make it double. Don’t worry, be happy.” — Bobby McFerrin
When I was a college journalism student, I had the privilege to interview Bobby McFerrin backstage after a performance. He was the first famous person I interviewed — a 10-time Grammy winner and author of the 1988 hit song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” I was nervous.
I’d never seen anything like McFerrin before. He is one of the few humans who can create different vocals simultaneously and is known for his improvisation. He went on stage alone and addressed the audience as if we were sitting in his living room. He demonstrated his multi-layered chords and explained how complex results start with basic details. The room grew quiet and he launched into his famous song. The music sounded just like what I’d heard on the radio — I’d always assumed it was a band that produced the song — but it was just his voice doing all of it.
It was a memorable moment, but it was my interaction with him backstage that really imprinted his lyrics on me. McFerrin exuded a genuine humility on stage. He treated the audience as a respected equal, and he was the same way backstage with a few of us reporters. We sat in a circle and he talked about personal things and the importance of staying true to one’s self, or voice, you might even say. The black man with greying dreadlocks had such a gentle, approachable ambience that I found the courage to ask a real question.
“How do you stay so humble? How do you keep your ego from getting the best of you in spite of all your experience?”
His eyes shot straight to me. His brow furrowed a little.
“How can you say that I don’t have an ego?” he said. “We all have an ego. Don’t think for a second that I don’t.”
In his look I felt the darkness of a storm unleashed, as if he had removed a cork from the bottle to give me a peek of the weather that broods inside every human.
Now, when I hear the words to that song, I hear its truth, its lightness and heaviness all at once. I know McFerrin’s words have been lived, and he’s right — “when you worry, you make it double.”
Last week, I was climbing a huge cliff in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It was already raining at 8 a.m. when my partner and I left the ground for a difficult, 2,000-foot ascent. Somehow Jack and I kept the mood light and pressed on, happy to be there despite the ominous weather.
In things like climbing, my biggest worry is that my ego will cloud my judgment. I’m always straining to hear the inner voice that rings true, yet so much softer than the one that cracks out of me like thunder every so often.
“Why am I doing this?” I often ask myself, as I did last Saturday in the Black Canyon.
Without realizing it, that old familiar tune crept into my head. I whistled it on the ledge with my rain shell on as I belayed Jack climbing up to me.
Climbers often struggle with “over gripping,” which is when you unconsciously squeeze the handholds harder than you need to because you’re scared of falling. Over gripping drains the muscles and can actually manifest the very fear you’re trying to avoid. A big key to avoid falling during a rock climb is to relax, exerting just enough energy to balance on the tiny holds.
I’ve found life in general to be a lot like that. The more energy I spend resisting changes, trying to maintain everything the way it is, the less I am able to go with the flow; to use my momentum and succeed at something new. A certain amount of letting go is constantly required, and my ego is one factor that bungles it up — gets my mind racing about what I am and what I might not be — and I miss the moment of transcendence.
I’m occasionally able to let go of my ego and reach a higher awareness when I give myself permission to fail at something and try again. I suppose that’s what I did when I asked McFerrin that awkward question. It’s definitely what I did when I had to climb through an overhang and risk a scary fall.
A thousand feet above the Gunnison River, I took a deep breath, surrendered myself to the physical task at hand, and reached blindly over the lip of the granite roof. Very little was holding me on, but I didn’t worry about consequences then, only what I might be able to reach next, even as my feet cut loose and swung into space. The movement — the challenge — was actually fun! Somehow I stayed relaxed and climbed smoothly over the difficult section.
“Woo!” I shouted as I stood on my feet again. In the back of my mind I heard the chorus of that song: “Woo, woo, woo, woo, woo. Wooo-O-ooo-ooo-oo. Don’t worry. Be happy.”
Everything starts basic. Let go. Make a move. Improvise. Feel life at your fingertips!
— “Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Friday of every month. Derek Franz lives in Carbondale and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.