Steve Seel: Music gives our lives balance, and we need it now more than ever

Taking in the news of the day, for many people, has turned into a teeth-gnashing and garment-rending experience. Elijah O'Donnell/Unsplash

Editor's note: As part of our Call to Mind initiative, classical host Steve Seel explains why we need music more than ever in the second of three essays. Check out Part 1 if you missed it.

Part 2

(As I sit down to edit this essay, I put on a piece of music — as I always do when I work on any kind of task. Today, it's Ralph Vaughan Williams' 6 Studies in English Folksong. I'm a sucker for Vaughan Williams, and this piece, in particular, for its incredible patience and sense of reflection. Listen below if you want.)

LISTEN Vaughan Williams: 6 Studies in English Folksong

A fascinating thing has happened in classical music in the past few years. People are listening more — a lot more, as it turns out. At Classical MPR, we have research numbers to back this up. We get audience listening data here just as commercial stations do, and our total audience has grown measurably since 2016. What explains this?

You don't have to think hard to venture a guess. The socio-political situation in the United States is filled to the brim with tension. Taking in the news of the day, for many people, has turned into a teeth-gnashing and garment-rending experience. And so, many people have augmented their media consumption with a listening experience that they feel is the opposite of the daily grind of conflict and fear.

For some, that refuge has been MPR's contemporary music station, the Current. But for others — especially those seeking music that's seen to be more generally synonymous with solace, contemplation and mental "space" — it's Classical MPR. And you better believe that we've also heard directly from listeners — lots of them — confirming this.

Here at Classical MPR, we've taken this reality to heart, and seen it as an opportunity not only to make sure we're providing that solace and refuge in spades, but to acknowledge on the air that classical music can be good for the soul when times are tense.

It's not just a service we're providing to you as a listener. This is where I admit to you that being a member of the team tasked with putting this profound, glorious music out onto the airwaves has been nothing short of a personal, emotional lifeline for me.

Woman with headphones Element5 Digital/Unsplash

For years, I have been a voracious consumer of political journalism, through newspapers, magazines and online sources like news websites and blogs. For more than a decade, I was the emcee of the Current's popular "Policy and a Pint" series, in which we hosted authors, pundits and newsmakers to talk about issues of the day. And yet, my enthusiasm for the topic (my wife says "politics is my favorite sport") has soured radically as my sadness about the current state of U.S. politics has eroded what enthusiasm I used to have. As someone who already struggles with depression and anxiety, the significant change in one of my personal interests was extremely hard to take, to the point where it was directly impacting my personal and family life.

The input from my therapist was unequivocal: I should seriously consider dialing back my consumption of the news for my health — quite literally.

But I had a gnawing problem with that proscription. Politics is not just an interest for me; it's a sense of profound civic duty. That's where my interest comes from to begin with. So being told, "You've got to consume less news," feels not only like being asked to be irresponsible, but it also is one that felt filled with upper-middle-class white privilege.

Civic duty, for many of us, is a given in our lives. Not only would we never consider not voting, but we also feel the need to be as informed as we can realistically be about all of the main social and political issues of the day. At first, I rebelled hard against the idea that I should have to turn off the fire hose of information and opinion that I was used to consuming. But it was taking a major toll on me.

And that's when I remembered "the dialectic."

In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which I've been involved with for about four years, the central idea is that mental health can be achieved by achieving a balance that your life had previously been lacking.

DBT was originally developed to help people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, long believed to be one of the trickier diagnoses in mental health to treat. (DBT is a great program for many people, though, regardless of a Borderline diagnosis.)

The rub is that those diagnosed with Borderline, and others who often enter DBT programs, have significant challenges with black and white thinking — and often such thinking can shift rapidly between seeing a person, thing or event as purely good or purely bad. (My mental health challenges throughout my life had led me to be someone who suffered this experience to a severe degree when under stress.)

I remember the day when my DBT doctor outlined the goal of the program: to allow me to define a healthy life as an ability to hold two contrasting thoughts in my head at the same time, without judgment, and decide for myself how to incorporate them both into my life as I saw fit, neither categorically embracing or rejecting either one. Navigating this balance was called "employing the dialectic," and it was an epiphany. It immediately became my personal definition of mental health.

And so it was time for me to employ the dialectic with regards to music and politics. Being in my "wise mind" (another DBT term) meant that I could embrace both, without thinking that the process was a zero-sum game.

Furthermore, employing the dialectic allowed me to see that the listeners coming to us and saying that Classical MPR was serving as an emotional lifeline to sanity and beauty to them weren't saying they had shut out the rest of the world in the process. They were just thanking us for being there.

Civic engagement is still necessary — indeed, more necessary than ever. But to use a boxing metaphor, you have to be in good shape if you're going to go a few rounds in the ring of the daily news cycle. Beethoven and Brahms can be like having Burgess Meredith as the manager from Rocky in your corner, handing you your water bottle and chop-chopping your shoulder muscles before the bell dings again.

So if you're among the listeners who come to Classical MPR (or just classical music, in general) as an oasis of sanity in an increasingly mad world, know that you're not alone. Many other people feel exactly the same — and so do many of us pressing the buttons and listening along with you behind the microphone. We're all lucky to have this amazing, enduring art be an anchor for us in a turbulent time.