MxPx and Philosophy: Invitation to Understanding

Is idiocy an epistemological problem or an existential one? If MxPx is correct than for most of us it’s not an issue of mental inferiority so much as it is an issue of impatience and lack of discipline. Knowledge, real understanding, takes time and effort, something for which our culture often has no appetite. Cultural idiocy is often an existential sin.

It was just recently that I rekindled my love for the pop-punk trio MxPx. I recall many an evening in high school driving around listening to Teenage Politics or Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo. Those two albums represent at least half of my regular listening for nearly four years of school, but I confess: I never gave much thought and attention to the themes and ideas communicated in their lyrics. But like much of the classic punk that preceded them, MxPx offers us the opportunity to reflect on culture, life, and particularly our part in the world in which we inhabit. So as I relived their albums one-by-one over the last few weeks I have reflected on one particular theme that comes up in their writing: idiocy. And particularly I have been struck by how often they root idiocy in personal laziness and lack of self-discipline.

Take, for example, one of my favorite songs: Invitation to Understanding. The song is a request for Understanding to come by and visit the singer at home. The problem is that, as the author recognizes, it’s hard for understanding to get over to his side of town. But even if understanding would make it the singer probably won’t be there waiting on it. Mike Herrera, frontman for the band, recognizes that most of us simply don’t have the patience and discipline to work for and wait on understanding. So he sings:

If you come knockin’ at my door And I am not around Foolishness came by and we’re downtown. Please don’t leave Please come on in and make yourself at home I know you’re probably used to being alone.

The ever-present friend “Foolishness” came by and instead of waiting on understanding we took off to run around with him. He asks, “What exactly does it take to bring you to my door?” It seems a sincere question. We all want knowledge, we want to understand. And yet “by the time that you arrive I won’t live here no more.” We are unwilling to work for that knowledge. We see the root of the problem is not epistemological, but existential. We refuse to work and wait for understanding, and so ignorance becomes our standard modus operandi. And we’re not alone in it. “I know there’s many people like me to be found,” Herrera sings.

Invitation to Understanding is just one song, though. And there is a rich catalogue of MxPx music which takes up the same theme, if even in a more tertiary way at times. “Lifetime Enlightenment” connects “Your wasted mind” to your “apathy.” In “Sometimes You Have To Ask Yourself” they write about the difficulty in getting shallow minds to comprehend what’s most important. They point out that far too many people have devolved into nothing more than thinking through functional utility. Herrera sings: Never quite just knew how to get it through the utilitarian sloaganeerian minds. He comments on compartmentalizing and catch phrases. All together the band’s early albums reflect how an unwillingness to think critically and work hard to understand leads to bias and assumption of others who are different. MxPx rightly understands that idiocy can, and often does, have massive implications for real life. Even if it begins as an epistemological sin it quickly plays out in our real experiences of life, and often can dramatically affect others.

In “Under Lock and Key” Herrera sings about the ways our lack of understanding can affect others. The opening line of the song reads:

There’s something crazy, something strange, about the way I’m lazy and how I go about  giving my time and how I reason. Do all my problems have to do with how I reason?

Laziness certainly applies more broadly here, but it may surely be related to how he reasons. And it’s not that Herrera is the idiot, here. He sings as one of us, for all of us. When he sings, “would it be right to say that no one ever truly listens or takes the time to understand” (One Step Closer to Life), the answer is obviously “yes.” We all have a problem with how we reason, usually stemming from our own laziness to think carefully and critically. We might all ask, rightly, “do all my problems have to do with how I reason?” And when we are honest about our own idiocy we might sing along with Herrera, “If you knew what was good for you, you’d lock me up and throw away the key.”

Perhaps the problem is rooted in our obsessions with television and technology. We’ve gotten so use to depending on these resources, and been so seduced by some of them, that we’ve actually stopped thinking all together. “Another Song About T.V.” tells us that it “washes your brain of intelligence.” And while not directly about television, they write that “teaching us not to reflect” is the “opposite of intellect.” In “Shut it Down” they urge us not to “let the T.V. turn into your reality.” Instead they call us to “shut it down, before we’re all out of time.”

Of course there so much that we don’t know and don’t have answers to as well. And Herrera sings often of the reality that he doesn’t have all the answers. Sometimes it does seem like “finding the sense in everything” is like going through your room to “find a diamond ring” (Under Lock and Key). But there is a source of real knowledge. There is a hope for all of us, those of us both ignorant and lazy. There is a hope for those in with either an epistemic failure or existential failure. Ours is a metaphysical hope. God is the one who understands even when we don’t. After describing the difficulty in finding the sense in everything, Herrera sings, “Something someone to believe in might be the other way” (Under Lock and Key).

The band’s not infrequent, if subtle, references to God offer a balance to their epistemic and existential frustrations. He is the one constant, the one stable factor in the universe. “God is faithful, even when you don’t have faith yourself” (Tomorrow is Another Day). And they point us, if perhaps surprisingly, to “the book with all the answers to all your questions” (Correct Me If I am Wrong). There is a “presences of an absolute” that we can feel (Inches from Life).

The divine presence is the solution we seek. In the midst of that presence it is possible to have an epistemic humility. There are some things we don’t know and that’s okay, we can still move forward and cling to life. Yet it is also this presence that compels us to work hard to understand, to take our epistemic responsibility seriously. We seek understanding because there is real truth, real absolutes out there. The key to my understanding struggles is God, and if I am surprised to learn that from MxPx, I am nonetheless thankful for it.

So let this post, strangely enough, serve as an invitation to understanding and an invitation to MxPx.

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