I’m a fan of Neko Case. Her 2009 album, Middle Cyclone, is among my favorites, and I’ve seen her in concert three times with her Canadian bandmates in the New Pornographers. (We even named our dog after her, although I’m not sure she would take that as a compliment!)
Her new album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, is also quite good, but it contains a song in the middle—the haunting a cappella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”—that has been bothering me. I’ll feel better if I write about it.
To be clear (in case Neko reads this!): While I dislike some judgments made in the song, it only has the power to get under my skin because it is a powerful song.
Before I share my thoughts, listen to the song here. Be forewarned: it includes the the F-word. It’s not gratuitous: she’s simply reporting what she overheard someone say.
The mother’s words to her child are, of course, inexcusable—horrifying, in fact. We can all relate to Case’s feelings. Haven’t we been awkward bystanders as a parent loses it in front of their child? (I just came back from Disney: I witnessed it several times in just a few days!) If we are parents ourselves, we’ve probably lost it a time or two in front of our children—in public. I certainly have.
So while we’re sympathetic with Case, can’t we also be sympathetic with the mother? The song describes something that happened at “nearly midnight,” after all. Ideally, no child would be up that late. Young children who are over-tired can easily get on a parent’s last nerve. Case couldn’t know what had transpired in the moments or hours leading up to the mother’s outburst. Even more importantly, she couldn’t know what was going on in that person’s life—what circumstances motivated her to lash out like that. Did her husband just leave her? Did a loved one die? Did she literally just lose her best friend?
Or was she just really, really exhausted and acting out? For all we know, in the clear light of day—after a good night’s sleep—this same woman might have felt deeply ashamed, deeply sorry for blowing up like this.
Or maybe not. Maybe she’s just a terrible human being.
The fact is, we can’t know. We can’t look inside someone’s heart and see what’s really going on. This is the reason Jesus tells us not to judge. We’re incapable of doing it fairly or accurately.
Based on the evidence presented in the song, we are hardly in a position to say, as Case does, that this mother doesn’t love her child. On the contrary, if she’s like the vast majority of us badly flawed and sinful human beings, she does—in spite of her harsh words. We “always hurt the ones we love,” as the old song says, and family members can be especially cruel. This is why we all need forgiveness and God’s grace.
As disciples of Jesus we should err on the side of giving this mother the benefit of the doubt: “What’s going on in your life right now that you would lash out at your child like this? You can’t really mean what you said. You must be really hurting. Isn’t life incredibly difficult sometimes?”
I still recommend the album. Order it here!