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Lately I’ve been mesmerized by a Tracy Chapman song called “All that You Have Is Your Soul.” You know how it goes: you re-discover a terrific song that touches your heart, and play it over and over.
As I’ve tried to wear out YouTube by listening to that song repeatedly, I’ve discovered a few cover versions: Emmylou Harris sang one that has become one of my favorites, too, but it’s hard to beat the original.
Chapman sings it like she wrote it, probably because she did. It sounds like it comes directly out of her lived experience, and you can hear that conviction in her voice, her phrasing and her quiet intensity. Here’s the chorus:
Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple
Don’t you eat of a bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
‘Cause all that you have is your soul. – Tracy L. Chapman
Chapman says in the song that her mother originally told her “don’t give or sell your soul away, ‘cause all that you have is your soul.”
I didn’t pay enough attention to this quiet, powerful song when it originally came out on Chapman’s second album in 1989, three decades ago now. Maybe I relate to it so well today because I’ve started to recognize the transience of material possessions now that I have some grey hair (okay, more than some …), or maybe I react to it so emotionally because my own soul has grown, or maybe I relish it so often because it tells the truth so starkly and so beautifully.
Or maybe I love the song so much because it echoes what I’ve learned from the Baha’i writings:
… drown thyself in the depths of eternity, that death may not overtake thee, and that thou mayest abide forever in the shadow of the everlasting Face of God. Thereupon shall the fragrance of the All-Glorious be diffused from the realm of the All-Merciful, and thy heart shall grieve no more over the vicissitudes of a fleeting life and the turns of a transient fortune. – Baha’u’llah, The Call of the Divine Beloved, p. 67.
While enjoying the things of this world we must remember that one day we shall have to do without them.
Attach not thyself to anything unless in it thou seest the reality of God—this is the first step into the court of eternity. The earth life lasts but a short time, even its benefits are transitory; that which is temporary does not deserve our heart’s attachment. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 134-135.
We all have a soul. How does yours feel lately?
Focusing on our physical health and fitness, we tend to forget to pay attention to the health of our soul. Is it getting enough nourishment? Does it have an honored place in my life? Do I hydrate it with prayer and meditation? What kind of care and feeding do I give my soul—or is it starving for attention, dying of thirst, wasting away out of neglect and inattention?
Tracy Chapman’s song tells us that we can only really own and truly possess one thing in this world and the next—the spiritual core of our being we call the soul. But the word “soul” has such a mystical meaning, so how can we get a grip on what it really refers to? The Baha’i teachings have a unique definition—they say that the human soul’s true essence consists of “virtues and attainments as are the adornments of the human reality:”
… it is clear that the honour and exaltation of man cannot reside solely in material delights and earthly benefits. This material felicity is wholly secondary, while the exaltation of man resides primarily in such virtues and attainments as are the adornments of the human reality. These consist in divine blessings, heavenly bounties, heartfelt emotions, the love and knowledge of God, the education of the people, the perceptions of the mind, and the discoveries of science. They consist in justice and equity, truthfulness and benevolence, inner courage and innate humanity, safeguarding the rights of others and preserving the sanctity of covenants and agreements. They consist in rectitude of conduct under all circumstances, love of truth under all conditions, self-abnegation for the good of all people, kindness and compassion for all nations, obedience to the teachings of God, service to the heavenly Kingdom, guidance for all mankind, and education for all races and nations. This is the felicity of the human world! This is the exaltation of man in the contingent realm! This is eternal life and heavenly honour! – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 89-90.
If you think of your innermost reality this way, you’ll surely realize the truth in Chapman’s song: all that you have is your soul.