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25 or 6 to 4: A Lesson from Chicago

In an interview not too many years ago, Robert Lamm, keyboardist and songwriter for the award-winning rock-n-roll band Chicago, noted that he wrote the band's Top-10 song "25 or 6 to 4" (listen here) in tribute to the many sleepless nights he spent feverishly trying to conjure the lyrics for a song or find just the right melody for a line of verse. During those periods, Lamm explained that delirium would often set in and in the cross-eyed stupor of darkened (and no doubt smoked-filled) rooms, he would have trouble with even the simplest of tasks, such as reading the time on the clock, which, obviously, became the inspiration for his song's refrain. The protagonist (as it were) in Lamm's quasi-ballad sits cross-legged on the floor while the dwammed room spins around him, and as he examines the clock on the wall, he cannot tell if it is registering 25 or 26 minutes to 4 AM (i.e., 3:35 AM or 3:34 AM). His senses dulled, he can only pine for sleep and pray that daybreak comes soon.

No doubt most of us have experienced some incoherently sleepless nights like this in our lives. On more than one occasion, I have suffered from delusions, blurred vision, and feral imagination as I attempted to push the limits of sleep deprivation. But what of those of us who have endured not only the pangs of insomnia but also seasons of sleeplessness in spirit--something many theologians and philosophers have called "dark nights of the soul"? In truth, anyone with even a scrap of forthrightness must stipulate on the point of occasional or protracted spiritual lows amidst even the most idyllic life. That is to say, everyone--without exception---must (metaphorically) travel dimly lit, winding roads in the pitch of night from time to time. Whether catalyzed by the loss of a loved one, financial distress, personal failure, practical agnosticism, or some other deleterious life event, the day comes for each of us when the sun fails to warm our shoulders and illuminate our paths.

Of course, it is in these signal moments that one's mettle and resilience are ultimately tested. Thus, the most important theme in Robert Lamm's tour de force is not that of distress, imminent defeat, realism or authenticity, or fate; rather, the song finds its firm, though furtive, footing in the theme of victory. In other words, the underlying and essential message is antithetical to a straight reading of the lyrics. Notwithstanding the protagonists insomnolence, the long nights eventually passed, the songs were completed, and Lamm and Chicago subsequently went down in history as rock-n-roll giants. It is so easy in the midst of despair and anxiety to believe that our current state is also our permanent one. But "25 or 6 to 4" reminds us--if only impliedly--that a new day will dawn. We will neither be perpetually stuck in delirium nor doomed to wander endlessly. As we press on and eschew surrender and defeat, we will most assuredly emerge victorious, even if we lose our way around the clock once in a while.

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