John Denver’s song, “Rocky Mountain High,” was popular when I was ten years old. At school, our teacher played it every day, giving us the written words to sing along with it.
I loved it. I could feel the elation and wonder the song describes. My favorite line was, “I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly.” I lived in the hot, dusty plains, but I could imagine walking in the cool mountains, and watching a bald eagle soar and dive.
However, I stopped listening to “Rocky Mountain High” because I was afraid it would lead me away from my religion.
Another line in the song said, “He could talk to God and listen to the casual reply.” I told myself that this line should be my favorite, not the one about the eagle. But I couldn’t keep myself from loving the eagle that flew in John Denver’s music. So I avoided the song to avoid the conflict.
There’s a component of this that’s worth identifying: having any strong positive feeling created inner conflict for me.
We were taught to distrust intense feelings in our home, and we often warned each other not to get too happy. Any member of the family who became excited at good news would quickly become an object of scorn. We scorned people outside of the family for the same thing. In fact, John Denver was often disdained in our house because we deemed him undeserving of his success, but I think it was really because his music stirred people, which made us uncomfortable.
I think this was part of a larger dysfunction of our religion. In our church, we were suspicious of anything too emotional. We thought it was dangerous to get too caught up in wonder or elation because happiness couldn’t possibly be spiritual. So we stayed as serious as possible and clamped down on the young ones if they got too enthusiastic.
I’m not sure where this aversion to joy comes from, but I think it’s connected to things like jealousy, depression, fear, and a lot of shame.
It’s hard to find an individual to blame when looking at how culture affects us. The older people who raised us were products of their culture, too, and it takes a few generations to recognize and weed out the harmful characteristics.
As for me, I think I’ll listen to some of John Denver’s music. Maybe I’ll have an inner conversation about allowing myself to be happy. Perhaps I’ll even make an effort to forgive and heal myself some.