There is no political solution
To our troubled evolution
Have no faith in constitution
There is no bloody revolution
We are spirits in the material world
The Police: The Ghost in the Machine
I was recently refinishing my son’s old dresser with white wash stain and blue-gray chalk paint, an activity I find thoroughly gratifying, when Spotify served up a compelling tune from the 80s. Immediately I was whisked to another time and place with the thrumming reggae beat of “Spirits in the Material World” by The Police. Sting reportedly wrote this song on a Casio keyboard in the back of a truck. From these simple origins sprung a very complex tune. If you have forgotten this song, I urge you to listen to it again. It is perhaps one of the best songs by The Police.
I was only twelve when this song came out, and back then I couldn’t really understand the words. Arguably, there weren’t many songs with lyrics about spirits in them. My brother and I made up our own words which went something like: “Oops I spilled some milk in my cereal,” followed closely by the Madonna influenced, “We are spirits in a material world, and I’m a material girl.” Not until my father told us the true lyrics with an interesting, thoughtful look in his eye did we understand there was a bit more to this song.
Brushing a second coat of paint on the dresser I am simultaneously thinking of my childhood and the current political climate with the first words:
There is no political solution….to our troubled evolution
My mind wanders to a bumper sticker I had seen recently. It resembled a political campaign sticker but read, “Vote for Obiwan Kenobi: Our Only Hope.” Both funny and grave, this perfectly sums up the ongoing lunacy that has enveloped this country this year. I don’t dwell on this long because Sting continues to the most repeated line in the song:
We are spirits in a material world…
This line has always been an obstacle for me. It is at once confusing and captivating. Who writes these kinds of lyrics? No one does, really. No one but Sting, that is. His poetic words have always been both bewitching and thought provoking.
We are spirits in a material world…
What does this line mean? It turns out that the witty English teacher, Sting, was greatly influenced by a Hungarian philosopher named Arthur Koestler. In fact, Koestler wrote a very heady book named The Ghost in the Machine, which is also the name of the album by the Police featuring this song. Koestler’s book describes the “ghost” as the spiritual or higher self of humans and argues that this “self” may be extinguished by the “machine” or big government and big business. His philosophy builds upon the idea of mind-body dualism, an idea proposed by Rene Descartes in the 17th century.
Beginning from his famous maxim Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), Descartes postulated that the mind and body were two distinct types of substances or natures. The mind, as opposed to the physical brain, was made of something other than matter (the body), which obeyed the laws of physics.
We are spirits in the material world…
This seems a particularly clever lyric. It reminds me of a popular quote which has been attributed to a Jesuit priest who happened to be a paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Cardin:
“We are not humans having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
This quote requires a fundamental change in what you believe humans ultimately are. It suggests that humans are a bit more infinite than we seem, and it resonates at a very basic level. If we are truly spirits having a human experience then we seem to strut and fret a great deal in this brief life. We get all wrapped up in the material world and cannot see our connection with the divine. Nonetheless, life is fleeting and the spirit, limitless. We come into this world with a natural intelligence of our spirit but through conditioning and societal expectations we lose sight of how spectacular we are. As we get older we start believing that what we are is made up of the jobs we hold, our successes and failures, and the opinions we possess. Through the power of our ego, we forget ourselves, and we lose ourselves to the power of the material world.
Neither The Police or Arthur Koestler give any real remedy to this destruction of the spirit and the glorification of materialism. The knowledge that your higher self can get lost in the “machine” of the world is a start, as is being able to step outside of our conditioning to see the larger picture instead of getting caught up in the mundane. As The Police would say:
Where does the answer lie? Living from day to day
If it’s something we can’t buy… there must be another way