3 AM: An Existential Introspection

“Well its 3 AM again, like it always seems to be
Drivin’ northbound, drivin’ homeward, drivin’ wind is drivin’ me
And it just seems so funny that I always end up here
Walkin outside in the storm while looking way up past the tree-line
It’s been some time”

It truly had been some time since I last turned this song on, but it was only nearly 3 AM as I listened along sitting atop a rustling dryer in the basement of our new apartment building. When people ask about my all-time favorite song, I am always embarrassed to tell them its “‘3 AM’ by Gregory Alan Isakov.” For one, “3 AM” is by no means a jam. It merely consists of a guitar and Isakov’s piercing voice, a paring that forces the listener to hone in on the looming lyrics – my second cause of embarrassment. “3 AM” is mysterious, but its mystery is dripping with existential introspection. The song draws in the curious listener with ambiguous lyrics that are resolved by the listener who projects upon the lyrics their own memories of being wide awake at 3 AM. For me this is precisely what “3 AM” is about: all the living repressed memories, feelings, emotion, and thoughts that keep me up at night. 

“Give me darkness when I’m dreaming
Give me moonlight when I’m leaving
Give me shoes that weren’t made for standing
Give me tree-line, give me big sky, get me snow-bound, give me rain clouds give me a bed time… just sometimes”

I love this song because one of the primary subjects in the song is “me.” I know that sounds egotistical but hear me out. During the day, I often think about myself as a single personality in a sea of other people, but as night comes and people fall asleep, I can analyze my own complexity. During the day, we are often continually participating in life with others. We need things from them and them, us; but, sometimes – often at night – we find time to think about ourselves. The silence of the night draws us into ruckus of the mind where we reflect on how we are changing, on the variation of our needs, and on who we hope to become tomorrow, which is itself a hope that is always in subtle transition. As I write about reflecting this way, I wonder if people chuckle, thinking, “I wish I had the time to reflect like you,” but don’t misunderstand me. I don’t reflect like this often, and when I do, it is seldom intentional and more often than not driven by insomnia and anxiety. Although existential introspection might seem nice, many of us (definitely myself) actively avoid it. I won’t go into all the ways we avoid it here, but avoiding these thoughts isn’t necessarily bad. As Isakov says: sometimes, we just need a bed time.

“Now you’re talkin in my room, but there ain’t nobody here
‘Cause I’ve been driving like a trucker, I’ve been burnin’ through the gears
I’ve been training like a soldier, I’ve been burnin’ through this sorrow
And the only talkin lately is that background radio

As I sat on top of that dryer in the middle of the night, I was totally alone. When I think of the idea of solitude, it is peace, serenity, and a lack of chaos; however, in practice, solitude actually brings with it a flood of anxiety, mental unrest, and chaotic uncertainty. This silent tumult is me, and I am terrified of myself. When I am around others, the illusion of control is maintained, but total solitude exposes the many mes (the plural form of “me” is not a thing, but I am going with it anyway) that vie for control of my mental order in each passing second. In this solitude, I am privy to my plethora of concerns, anxieties, fears, and decisions. In external silence, I sense my higher mental functions categorizing in each passing moment the pandemonium of my thoughts by repressing some while elevating others. In solitude, there is talking everywhere but nowhere, and I am not kidding you; it scares the hell out of me. Anyone can turn on the news and see that we are all estranged from each other, but has it ever occurred to us that we are alienated from ourselves? The idea that we have some stable essential personality driving our personal existence is a lie or, at least, a mythical ideal. It would behoove us to just accept that fact and embrace our essential homelessness, the estranged ambiguity of our existence. 

You were my friend, and I was the same
Riding that hope was like catching some train
Now I just walk, well I don’t mind the rain
Singing so much softer than I did back then

Often in this anxiety, I reflect on the critical relationships in my life. It always fascinates how relationships change as the people in them change. To clarify, I am not necessarily talking about relationships changing for the worst, but just the fact that they do change. In fact, it comforts me when I am dealing with deep anxiety to know that many of my friends have accepted me, loved me, and even cheered for me through all my changes. They don’t always get why I am changing or who I am becoming, but they love me just the same. In truth, it is their love that helps me love myself through all the inevitable changes that I am going and will go through. For me, this what grace must be. Grace always comes from another (or, the other within us) to us. Although it is only momentarily, these waves of grace can calm our chaos by affirming us with love, acceptance, and kindness. True grace empowers us to embrace life despite the vicissitudes of being, and grace is a resource that emerges only from loving relationships. Despite the uncertainty in ourselves, in the space of grace, we feel understood. 

“The night, I think, is darker than we can really say
And God’s been living in that ocean, sending us all the big waves
And I wish I was a sailor so I could know just how to trust
Maybe I could bring some grace back home to the dryland for each of us”

Personally, this is my favorite lyric of all time. Maybe it is the fishermen in my blood or the theologian in my mind, but I knew that this lyric encompassed my calling from the first time I heard it. About a decade ago, I stood on a beach that was getting hit by the outer bands of a hurricane. I don’t suggest doing this; it was absolutely terrifying. As I watched massive waves swallow the Pensacola Pier like it was a plank, I knew that this feeling of total awe, fear, reverence, and helplessness must be what people meant by “the Holy Fear of God.” The experiences were definitely different, but just like I was paralyzed by fear on that beach, I was paralyzed by fear on that dryer staring into the void of my own self-conscience(s). Such experiences bring with them the feelings of finitude, and they are Holy. In the wakes of these moments, life not only feels more vibrant but the experiences ground us and force us to look to each other with trust and love. Without each other, how else will we weather these existential hurricanes? 

Say what you say, you say it so well
Just say you will wait, like snow on the rail
I been combing that train yard for some kind of sign
Even my own self, it just don’t seem mine

If there is one thing that 2020 has taught me, it’s that all we have is each other. The individualism that our society has celebrated is collapsing into chaos while we sit at home in solitude, terrified of our estrangement and finitude. 2020 is a hurricane, and its looming waves threaten the very fabric of our being. We are collectively coming to the end of individualism as we each realize that our “even [our] own self, don’t seem mine.” In 2020, many are saying that they have been rejected by our culture, and I wonder if this void of rejection can become a space for grace. Paul Tillich said that “grace is the acceptance of that which is rejected.” My own solitude has shown me that I often reject myself, that I am terrified of my own estrangement and finitude, and I am hesitant to confront it. However, the love of my friends encourages me. Echoing Tillich again, others’ acceptance of me gives me “the courage to be,” – the courage to embrace the terror of being and live. In this storm of life, let us have grace for each other and bring it to the people in waves of love, solidarity, and authenticity. 

“Give me darkness when I’m dreaming, give me moonlight when I’m leaving
Give me mustang horse and muscle, I won’t be going gentle
Give me slant-eye looks when I’m lying, give me fingers when I’m crying
And I ain’t out there to cheat you, see I killed that damn coyote in me”

 So, as I sit here writing at 3 AM wrestling with my demons, I hope you will also wrestle with yours too. As we existentially come to the end of ourselves individually, we may feel hopeless, powerless, and empty; in other words, we may feel like we are going through the pits of hell. Yet, in these dark days, may we not forsake the communion of us saint-sinners. Although we may not gather in body, let us gather in Spirt, for wherever there are faithful friends, the Holy Spirit of Resurrection will be there in the midst. Let us create egalitarian networks of friendship, love, grace, and solidarity. Let these friendships crisscross the artificial boundaries we have socially, religiously, politically, and culturally established. Let these friendships be spaces of perpetual renewal and let our creed be “incipit vita nova – a new life beings.” As we come to the end of ourselves, let us embrace our new beginning on the horizon. In fact, let us be “eternal beginners” for “that is the best thing that can be said about believers, lovers, and the hopeful.” 


The last few quotes/lines of this essay are from or drawing from the intro to Jürgan Moltmann’s In the End – The Beginning.

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