A Song of Gratitude

Lately, as I’ve been driving around town I’ve been listening to the soundtrack of the original production of Les Miserables. I cannot stop. Listening and singing along to the musical has become an incredibly therapeutic experience. Boublil, Schonberg, and Kretzmer somehow managed to put into music and into song the richness of the 1862 novel (still the most beautiful book I’ve ever read), but also to make it as current and universal as the novel itself. I don’t think any one musical resonates as deeply with me on so many emotional levels. To listen to Les Mis is to listen to what it means and feels like to be human.

Driving around this last Thanksgiving weekend, I was struck by the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” It perfectly encapsulates the sorrow of gratitude I wrote about in my last post. Some may find this claim odd, saying the song is more about sorrow than being about the sorrow and joy that compose gratitude. In some sense, I agree: the joy required of gratitude is not yet present in this song. However, the deep sorrow, the recognition of luck, the recognition that “it could have turned out differently”, the searching question of “why do I enjoy this benefit when so many deserving others do not?” is soaked into the fibers of the song, the very mental state that precedes the experience and practice of what I imagine will be Marius’ profound gratitude as his life goes on.

I thought I would post the lyrics here, with a suggestion to listen to this song in a new way, in one that is primed to appreciate the complexities and pain of being truly grateful. If you can listen to Marius sob “Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me…” without feeling the weight of privilege and empathetic sorrow in your soul, then you might be dead inside.

“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” by Alain Albert Boublil, Claude Michel Schonberg, and Herbert Kretzmer

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken,
There’s a pain goes on and on.
Empty chairs at empty tables,
Now my friends are dead and gone.

Here they talked of revolution,
Here it was they lit the flame,
Here they sang about tomorrow and tomorrow never came.

From the table in the corner,
They could see a world reborn,
And they rose with voices ringing,
And I can hear them now
The very words that they have sung
Became their last communion
On this lonely barricade, at dawn.

Oh my friends, my friends forgive me
That I live and you are gone
There’s a grief that can’t be spoken,
And there’s a pain goes on and on

Phantom faces at the window,
Phantom shadows on the floor,
Empty chairs at empty tables where my friends will meet no more.

Oh my friends, my friends don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friend will sing no more.

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