‘38 Minutes’ by The King Blues, and trying to live one’s fullest life
3rd May 2020
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In summer 2019, leftie punk rock band The King Blues released 38 Minutes. It’s a concept album about a false missile warning in Hawaii, when an emergency text was sent to everyone in warning them to seek shelter, that ‘THIS IS NOT A DRILL’, exploring how people react when they think they’re about to die. (More about the false alert here.)

I thought I’d write about this album because it meant a lot to me when I first heard it, and also gave me a good reminder recently, in the midst of many days feeling grey due to the virus situation. In this essay, as well as exploring and sharing the album with you, I dwell on the question it poses about living our fullest life. It’s not a short one, but you could stop partway through when I finish talking about the album if you’d like, or skip through some sections.

The first track, “Opening Scene”, is a narrative one, explaining what happened on the morning of the 13th January 2018, and posing the question:

‘How does one react when told these are the last moments?
It turns out, in lots of different ways.

The track finishes with the line, ‘These are some of their stories’, bridging us into the stories which make up the bulk of the album. The only tracks which aren’t stories are the penultimate one, “Closing Scene”, which finishes the narrative by talking about the government response, and the final track “End Credits”, in which The King Blues’ lead singer gives his reflections. I’ll talk more about that final track later on.

**

While I won’t cover every song, I thought some of the stories worth including here. “Get the Boat” is about a couple having an affair, who after receiving the alert did what they often do together: go out on a boat. Presumably their partners found out afterwards.

Another story of a couple, “Blissfully Unaware”, is about a couple on honeymoon together, and unless I’ve mixed up the story with another track, they never found out about the alert and continued to spend time together in hammocks. It seems to me that the story is in there to remind us to be present and enjoy the peaceful moments we have.

“I Ain’t Getting Out of Bed” struck me, and also gives something of a foreshadowing of the message of the album. It’s about a boy with severe depression: ‘I’ve thought a lot about it/and I ain’t getting out of bed/anymore’. However, when he receives the missile alert, ‘The looming shadow of death, and the fear that follows her/had made him realise that he wanted, more than anything, to live’.

The final story I thought mentioning is one which is a mixture of carpe diem and simple fun: “Boomer and the Severed Goat’s Headtells of a group of teenage musicians who gave their first performance to others in the shelter they were inside. We’re told: ‘their set consisted of three songs played on repeat/though their technical ability may have been sometimes lacking’, and that ‘in the underground hall/the band played on… the music they were playing/took on a whole new meaning’.

**

The album is a fun concept, with energetic, enjoyable music and range of moods. But the final track, “End Credits”, gives it greater meaning, and takes the whole album up a level. In it, the singer reflects on the meaning of it all, speaking directly to the listener and giving his thoughts on responding to mortality by making the most of life. It’s not a new idea (remember YOLO?), but it is something that British culture shies away from confronting or embracing, and I found it to be a useful reminder.

The band’s previous albums are quite political, with song titles including: “Modern Life Has Let Me Down”, “Set the World on Fire”, “Off With Their Heads” and “Heart of a Lion”. This album is different, and I only noticed one political line, in this final track. I’ve put the full lyrics of “End Credit” here, as I couldn’t find them in a quick google. What follows here are my reflections on the concept, and how I interpret the track.

The lyrics follow the inner spiritual journey that means that big news like this changes how we think about things: that ‘sometimes it takes something like this happening/to understand the demons we’ve been battling’. Confronted so immediately with our mortality, it helps us to jettison so many things that don’t really matter and focusses us on what really does. The singer asks us directly: ‘what would you do if you too had 38 minutes?’.

Yet the next step is: why wait until actual death is near before engaging with these questions?

What’s it take to live our best life/all the time in the world, you could not be less right’‘so why wait for a warning/I could do it now’.

This becomes a verse that feels like a chorus, with the refrain: ‘I’ll live my fullest life each and every single day’, repeated a few times.

**

When I first heard this song, it was late summer last year. I was sitting on the floor in the living room of my flat, playing Zelda on my flatmate’s Switch. I used to play computer games a lot as a teenager, but stopped playing them when sport, studying, reading and other hobbies took over, and as a rule I didn’t play them anymore. I only went back to them at times when I was in need of a distraction – which as it happens, has included during the virus situation, when I’ve decided that some escapism and entertainment would do be good.

The reason I felt I needed distraction on this particular day last summer was that I wasn’t feeling well. A significant relationship I had been in had recently ended, which was affecting me deeply, and alongside this, I was experiencing a combination of insomnia and a resurgence of depression, affecting my mood, thoughts and energy a big hit. The insomnia had actually started before the relationship had begun to end, but it continued and the two compounded.

38 Minutes popped up on my Spotify, recommended to me as I had listened to The King Blues a lot before. It may even have popped up because it had just been released. I put it on while gaming, finding the stories quite interesting, but it was the final track that did it for me. I don’t remember exactly what happened, whether I had an immediate revelation or whether it circled back in my mind a few days later, though I do remember that a few days after I spent awhile listening back to the album trying to find the lyrics ‘I’ll live my fullest life each and every single day.

The idea of recognising mortality and the embracing what life holds isn’t new to me. I had a significant operation when I was 16, which did something to remind me to both be grateful and make the most of what I was able to do. Between then and my early twenties, I did a fair amount of soul-searching, discovering and developing myself. I’ve tried to meditate daily for most of the last five years, sometimes had the practice of writing gratitude or positivity lists, and read books about these sorts of topics.

But it remains an elusive and difficult mindset for me, though easier in the last year than it had been before, because I’ve experienced some level of depression for all of my adult life. At times it has been intense and almost all-consuming; at other times, it fades into the background. It’s still there, I describe it as mild and chronic, and it seems to almost be part of my personality. Due to this, it’s often difficult to be present and enjoy things. My hard-to-shake usual state is dwelling on the past, on things and people I miss, or on things I have failed or wanted to achieve and haven’t, or on some future worry. This also has a political dimension, recognising the huge injustices in our country around the world which seem almost insurmountable and the immense scale of ecological destruction which has only got worse in the last eleven years that it’s been a big part of my awareness.

In short, making the most of life was something I was already trying to do, but 38 Minutes certainly helped me with this.

**

Both these ideas and this album came to my mind again recently, in the current virus situation. It’s easy to put life somewhat on pause while we wait for it to be over, and hope that we’ll be lucky enough to make it through, and to some degree I had done this. Certainly there are many things which are inevitably on hold for now, but the reminder to try to live my fullest life each and every single day was an important one.

After a day stuck inside, I listened to “End Credits” and went for a walk around my nearest park. After ten minutes of brisk walking around the park, I finally relaxed, paused, reflected and took in my surroundings. I listened to birds, including the parrots that live in the park. I felt the air on my face, and I looked closely at the flowers.

The main lyric needs a slight adaptation though, in my view; I think that all we can actually do is try to live our fullest lives (each and every single day).

Some might be of the opposite view, that there is no trying, only doing. I imagine this coming from a personal trainer, or from a zen spiritual person who has recognised the importance of aligning action with intention. (After writing this, I actually googled it; it turns out that it’s something Yoda says in Star Wars, who is a mixture of personal trainer and spiritual leader. That doesn’t work for me though, and I find that the attempt, the process, is what is important. When the outcome is out of our control, all we can do is try; when it is within our control, well it’s the trying that gets is to that outcome. Or perhaps the ‘fullest life’ isn’t an objective measure of how full one’s life could be, but instead the fullest that is possible for is, though I’m not sure this semantic reframing actually helps much.

**

It’s very difficult to undo the internalised notion that our purpose is to be productive, and that our ‘fullest’ life involves pushing ourselves to make and create and work on ourselves to our best. This is a work ethic which benefits those who might profit from our labour, but it’s also something we can do to ourselves if we’re a small business owner, a personal brand doing an enterprise of our own steam.

While being productive does has its place, clearly life should be broader. Life should also be about enjoyment, doing things which don’t ‘have a purpose’, and taking in the rich texture of what life has to offer. This shouldn’t swing too far into hedonism, whether that’s drink and drug binges which erode someone’s ability to live a full live, or whether it’s the modern consumer of meaningful experiences who wants to travel as much as possible, have loads of adventures, eat all sorts of amazing foods and collect experiences.

There’s also the added difficulty of current virus situation. For those of us who don’t have ‘key work’ to do, we’re stuck inside (especially if working from home), and this has the potential to be a difficult and potentially traumatic situation for everyone. These constraints force upon is behaviours which are usually associated with depression: not going outside and little social contact. Lots of people are reporting unusual swings in mood and energy, and certainly I’ve noticed having less energy and less emotional resilience at this time. I think we should go easy on ourselves and not try forcing ourselves to be productive.

There is a third dimension to throw into the question of what living one’s fullest life means: the political. Instead of a simple trade-off between being productive and having a good time, we should also have to balance doing good things for other people and changing the world.

Now, I understand that not everybody is like this. Many people are not setting out to change the world, and might instead just be living their own life while being nice to people they know and giving a bit of money to charity. But that’s not me. My goal has always been about changing the world, transforming it to remove some amount of injustice and make it better for other people. With the luxury of food whenever I want it, being able to spend time with people I love and being able to be outside feeling fresh air – how can one not also be inspired and driven to give those who don’t have these those opportunities?

For the question of the fullest life, despite the earlier framing that brought ‘political’ in as a third aspect of productive versus enjoyment, for me it actually aligns everything quite well. For me being productive is about being politically effective; my main work has always been political work, not to gain material wealth or a higher status. Fulfilment and enjoyment also requires me to be doing political work, otherwise some level of guilt or lack of meaning takes over from the enjoyment that might be felt from various things.

Bound up in this is how much we should sacrifice personally in our political efforts. There’s been a recent resurgence of ‘self-care’ and ideas that we should still have some nice hobbies alongside our political work, and not just be burned out politically. Self-care is still somewhat bound up with a capitalist-productive dynamic, and can be framed as about looking after yourself so that you can be well enough to be productive. It is a good concept for pushing back against modes of production which do not care for the person’s well-being, but we do need to go further beyond a basic level of care for ourselves and also have space in our lives to enjoy it, and experience something of the fullness of life. Either way though, there’s the question of how to balance of both self-care and the richness of life with political efforts, or how much to sacrifice.

This difficulty is, of course, a massive privilege. Many people are struggling simply to exist, either materially or politically, with no space in their life to consider, or no possibility even, to take a step back from this struggle to have some peace and enjoyment. I have more than enough privilege that I have to struggle with the question of how much to sacrifice in my personal, material or experiential life for political work, or how to navigate the trade-offs of self-care with work. That it’s a privilege doesn’t stop these being difficult questions. Should I ever go on holiday, or eat nice food, when that money could do much more for those who need it? Should I spend my day going on a long walk to unwind, or even writing something like this, when I could spend it campaigning against one of the many, many injustices in the world? These aren’t questions with easy answers either way, but are bound up in what it means to live our fullest life.

**

My fullest life is some mixture of political work and doing things which are good for me: enjoying and playing music, spending time with people I want to spend time with, finding connection and meaning in the world, enjoying nature, and so on. I am grateful that 38 Minutes helped me to remember what is important, for me and for others.

While I don’t have the answers for how much we should sacrifice or burn out in political struggle, but dwelling on these questions helps remind me what is important, and perhaps these are questions which are meant to stay questions to help us navigate this instead of actually be answered. So, with this mixture, I will continue to try and live my fullest life each and every single way.

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