Sunday, August 8, 2010

Old Souls

For cynical people with questions about life and death and doubts about heaven, hell, and purgatory (thank goodness Limbo has been confined to the theological landfill), reincarnation is a most attractive concept. It just seems to be able to provide more satisfying answers to the age-old questions like “Why are we here?” and “Why is there so much suffering in the world?”

The CBC National News usually includes one or two in-depth feature stories in its nightly broadcast. A recent story took veteran reporter Joe Schlesinger to Calgary, Alberta, where he interviewed 14-year-old classical pianist Jan Lisiecki, who is considered a prodigy. Schlesinger says, “He may still be a child but Jan Lisiecki …has a record of mature, sophisticated performances that have wowed critics and audiences the world over.” The maturity and sophistication are manifested in Jan's gorgeous tone and in his interpretation of the pieces he plays with such astonishing mechanical facility. Violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman says of Lisiecki that “talent of that magnitude comes at least two or three generations apart.”

If there is such a thing as an “old soul,” Jan Lisiecki truly fits the category. When he was six years old, his piano teacher had him play “a boringly technical finger exercise.” Jan’s teacher says, “Usually it’s just a matter of playing the notes. He played it so beautifully, I…never could’ve even imagined it played so musically. It transformed these kind of dry notes into beauty.” Think of the average six-year-old. Then think of a clever and talented six-year-old. Now imagine a six-year-old that can not only recognize and understand beauty but can express it through a powerful and sophisticated musical instrument.

Zukerman said the first time he heard Jan play, “within the first seven or eight bars” the boy had already impressed him deeply. “I can tell you that if I didn’t know who was playing, I would hear an old soul. An old soul is what you hear in great talent.” Conductor Boris Brott, another admirer and supporter of this young pianist, marvels at Jan’s ability to interpret composers like Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven, “to literally don their cloak, to wear their jacket as it were.”

The “old soul” deal is sealed for me when I hear this young man speak. Because he is fourteen, there is “childish impishness,” an impishness often seen in the 80-year-old Vladimir Horowitz. But there is also wisdom, insight, and humility rarely seen in human beings of any age, never mind a young teenager.

On being called a child prodigy, Jan says, “I really dislike being called a prodigy or a genius because I feel that doesn’t really describe me. I feel that I’ve been very lucky with the people that I’ve met and with the people that have been helping me, and that I’ve also worked very hard for what I’ve got. And possibly I do have talent, depending on what your definition of it is. But really I don’t think that being called a child prodigy and thinking of ‘Where will he go? What will happen?’ is not really a good thing for the child.” He keeps the numerous awards he has won in a box on a shelf in the basement.

After music, Jan’s second love is flying. When asked by Schlesinger, “And what if a career in music doesn’t work out?” Jan replies, “Well, I think I’d be a little bit disappointed, but I would still love the music, and [big smile] I would have the option of becoming a pilot.”

Jan has skipped three grades in school and will likely graduate at fifteen.

How is it that a 14-year-old can have such depth and maturity, yet a 75-year-old still has not recognized that he or she is acting out childish insecurities through jealousy, compulsive behaviour, bigotry, and self-absorption? How is it that this boy is able to experience a thrilling, fulfilling yet peaceful life, embraced by the love of wise parents, while other children his age are neglected or brutalized or suffer disease or starvation?

We could, as Christians, say that God has smiled on Jan by giving him talent and tender support, but that does not explain the depth and the maturity of this young man. Nor does it explain his apparently privileged position, one that other children could not even dream of.

But could it be that Jan’s hard work has not just been the work of this life? Is it possible that Jan has worked hard through many lives, including lifetimes in which he suffered terribly and seemingly without reason? Perhaps that is what the 75-year-old is doing—working his or her way through the mystery, not only in this lifetime but in many more to come. And maybe those children who suffer—needlessly, we think—are working their way through the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth as well, and will some day, like Jan Lisiecki, be called an “old soul.”

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