by Kate Henley Averett
My sister and I were in the car, probably on our way to some family function or another, listening to Anna Nalick’s album “Wreck of the Day” when the title track came on. “I wish this album had been out when we had broken up,” she remarked, referring to a particularly rough breakup with a boyfriend about a year earlier. “This would have totally been my breakup song.”
I knew what she meant. I’d had countless similar experiences, where a song seemed to speak so profoundly to an experience I had had, that they became inextricably linked in my mind. I have a hunch that it’s a Catholic thing – that we’re trained, through the liturgy, through our theology, to find connections between art and life, and that it’s especially the case with music.
Well, it’s been over two months since my most recent breakup – with the Catholic Church – and I’ve finally found my breakup song. At the beginning of June I went to see American Idiot on Broadway. It was an incredible, powerful, moving, and all-around kick-ass show. One song in particular really stuck with me, and I found myself listening to it over and over again in the days after seeing the performance. “21 Guns” is something of the anthem of the show – the cast has performed it on multiple talk shows and, most notably, at this year’s Grammy Awards – and I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’m obsessed with it.
Do you know what’s worth fighting for
When it’s not worth dying for
Does it take your breath away
And you feel yourself suffocating?
I hear the opening lyrics to the song and find a chilling comparison to my own words just over two months ago. “I feel like I can’t quite catch my breath. It’s not quite that I can’t breathe, but that I can’t seem to be able to breathe deeply enough, like if I could just get one giant gulp of air in my body would feel better, normal, not so tight, not so heavy.”
Does the pain weigh out the pride
And you look for a place to hide
Did someone break your heart inside
You’re in ruins.
These lyrics hit me right in the gut, because they make me realize that part of the reason it took me so long to leave the Church, and the reason I waited until my heart was broken and I was in ruins, was pride. I had written an essay about how I could never leave the Church, and it was published! And so many people had told me how my words had touched them, strengthened them. I’ll admit it now, that part of the pain I was feeling when I wrote that post was because I felt like a failure. What was wrong with me that I didn’t have the strength to stay, like so many others whose determination, wisdom, and perspective I value and admire? I wanted to be able to stay, like they do. But eventually, the pain did outweigh the pride.
One, 21 guns
Lay down your arms, give up the fight.
One, 21 guns
Throw up your arms into the sky
I know that this song wasn’t written for me. I don’t know what Billie Joe Armstrong had in mind, exactly, when he wrote it, but giving up the struggle to stay in a relationship with a Church that has both nurtured you and torn you down over the course of your lifetime probably wasn’t it. But when I hear these lyrics, I feel vindicated in my decision to leave. I’ve lain down my arms, and given up the fight.
“21 Guns” is my breakup song, two months after the fact. But it’s not one that makes me brood, wallow in the sadness, and mourn the loss. When I crank the volume in my car and belt out the lyrics at the top of my lungs, I feel myself being healed.
Video: Greenday and the cast of American Idiot, 21 Guns
Kate Henley Averett is a bit of a musical theater geek. Besides American Idiot, other obsessi- um, I mean, favorites of hers include Spring Awakening and RENT. The first CD she ever purchased was Greenday’s Dookie, in 1994.