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7 things we can all learn from the music and life of John Lennon

About 1.15 million people in the U.S. have died from gun violence since John Lennon’s death 35 years ago. What can his life and music tell us about how to respond to violence, intolerance, and hate? 

Photo Credit: Keystone / Hulton Archive

On December 8, 1980, John Winston Lennon was gunned down outside his apartment building, the Dakota, in New York City. His assailant, whose name does not bear repeating, shot Lennon five times with a .38 caliber revolver. The doorman and concierge of the building managed to disarm the attacker and call the police. Lennon was taken to Roosevelt Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The assailant bought his gun legally in Hawaii, and because he had no public history of mental instability, there was no great difficulty in purchasing it. Lennon left behind a wife and two sons.

Since Lennon’s death, 1.15 million people have died from gun violence in the United States.

But the ending isn’t the story. In honor of Lennon’s memory, here are some lessons from his music and life that can help us all as we respond to violence, intolerance, and hate as we try to make sense of the senseless.

1.) 1967 “With A Little Help From My Friends”/Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band

While this song was sung by Ringo Starr, it was written by Lennon. The sentiment is that even though we feel afraid or alone at times, it is through our friends that we are “gonna try” to keep going. The late ’60s were a time of intense violence and uncertainty, not unlike today. The truth of this song is that everyone, from Lennon to you and me, needs social support to feel better. Fun Fact: When recording this song, Starr was afraid to hit the high note at the end, so the other Beatles gathered around him and held hands in a show of support. That’s how you get by with a little help from your friends.

2.) 1969 Bed-In For Peace

Lennon and wife Yoko Ono famously spent their honeymoon protesting the Vietnam War from their bed at the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel. Lennon was using the inevitable publicity resulting from his marriage for the powers of good. Playing off of the idea of a “sit-in” or “be-in,” the bed-in did exactly what he wanted it to: It got a ton of publicity, and with all the cameras in his face, he had the best possible platform to promote peace. The second bed-in, in Montreal, is where “Give Peace A Chance” was recorded. We don’t all have the ability to attract massive publicity when we want to deliver a message of peace, but that’s not the take-away. The lesson here is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a celebrity or a regular person, you can use what influence you do have to promote peace.

3.) 1970 “God”/Plastic Ono Band

I don’t believe in Beatles; I just believe in me/Yoko and Me/And that’s reality.

In this song, Lennon talks about all of the concepts he doesn’t believe in (religious and otherwise). This list includes Bob Dylan, Ti Ching, and ultimately the Beatles. Lennon is saying that he doesn’t buy into these ideals, these ideologies or dogmas that rule so many people’s lives. He does, however, believe in his direct experience: himself, and his love for his wife. Today, as religious extremism is spreading throughout the world, it can be a relief to remember that beyond concepts we are at our basic level just people. And the more we can ground ourselves in direct experience, the less likely we are to get carried away with either radical religious beliefs or xenophobia (shout out to Donald Trump on the latter).

4.) 1971 “Imagine” and “Gimme Some Truth”/Imagine

The title track on this album is the most well-known (and for good reason). It calls on our better nature; it gives us hope and asks to dream of a better world. “Imagine all the people living life in peace.” “You may say I’m a dreamer,” he says, “but I’m not the only one.” Of course he isn’t. The song is almost a rallying cry for peace, for the dreamers to come out from the clouds and turn their wishes into actions. The angrier side of that coin is found in “Gimme Some Truth,” where Lennon decries the absurdity of the Richard Nixon administration and other relevant social problems (such as chauvinism). “I’m sick to death of seeing things/from tight-lipped, condescending, mama’s little chauvinists” he says, the words still relevant today as business leaders tell women they aren’t as qualified as men. His wish for truth is simple; it’s coming from an agitated place because it feels like no one is telling him the truth. This is a plea that feels as real today as it did in 1971 — truth from our politicians and truth from our media is what we want, and what we are not getting.

5.) 1970 “Instant Karma!” (Single)

Instant karma, an idea Lennon first heard about from a friend in Denmark, is the idea that karma doesn’t take lifetimes to feel the fallout from, but is an immediate cause and effect. Here he presents the question: “Why in the world are we here?/Surely not to live in pain or fear.” Lennon is letting us know that he doesn’t have all the answers; he’s one of us and has the same worries. The idea of being stuck and confused is explored more in “How?” on Imagine, but here he makes a really interesting point: We are not alive just to hate, be in pain, or be afraid. In fact, we are all together, as mentioned in the first lines of “I Am the Walrus” and rephrased in this song as “We all shine on/Like the moon and the stars and the sun.” That’s an excellent reminder we can carry with us today — that we are united in both our wish for happiness, and our confusion about how to get it. Still, we’re in this together. That kind of solidarity is quite comforting.

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6.) 1973 “Mind Games”/Mind Games

Love is the answer/And you know that for sure/Love is a flower/You gotta let it grow

Yes is the answer/And you know that for sure/Yes is surrender/You gotta let it go

In this song, Lennon rephrases the “All You Need Is Love” sentiment he wrote with the Beatles into a slightly more mature and nuanced perspective. You already know that love is the answer, or antidote, to violence and hate. But you have to let it grow. And how do you do that? By saying “yes” to your experience. That is true in relationships and also in life. The more we surrender to the moment and accept the reality, the less we feel the need to control, the more room there is for love and finally action. As Carl Rogers said, it is only when I accept myself that I can change. Fun fact: it was the word “yes” that brought Lennon to Ono. He had no idea who she was, but went to her art show and saw a painting on the ceiling that had a ladder and a magnifying glass. It simply said “yes” on the canvas. He immediately wanted to meet the artist, and the rest is history. Interestingly, the “yes” in this song could also serve as an analogy for their relationship.

7.) 1975-1980Break From the Spotlight

From 1975 to 1980, Lennon took a break from recording music and doing concerts to be a “househusband,” as he put it, and just “make some bread.” He did in fact make homemade bread, take care of his son Sean, and offer love and support to his wife. What we can all learn from this is that, beyond our careers and the craziness of the world, at the end of the day, our relationships with friends and family are what matters most. You don’t have to take a dramatic leave of absence as Lennon did (before coming out with his excellent last album, Double Fantasy), but we can all take moments every single day to leave that world and spend real time and attention with those we love. Isn’t that Lennon’s greatest gift to us, really? The knowledge that all you need is love is our best defense against religious extremism, religious intolerance, and the constant violence of both word and action we see so often. Thank you, John Lennon.

Lori Chandler is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, NY. She has been published in The New York Times and on CollegeHumor. You can follow her on Twitter @LilBoodleChild to keep up with her latest pieces, performance dates, and wry observations.


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