Windows of Heaven Words & Music by Steve Gillette & Pat Pfister
When Tennessee Williams created his character Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, he had her famously declare, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” In itself it’s a nice thought, something that might have been embroidered on a sampler on the wall of a cabin somewhere. But it seems Williams was saying something else by it.
We’re meant to understand that Blanche is a fragile and delusional woman, overly trusting and possibly manipulative, hoping to be rescued from her downfall by her younger sister and her unwelcoming husband. We’re given to understand that one should not count on kindness, or at least that pretensions of refinement should not give one license to presume.
But is there a font of human kindness that can be affirmed? Can we say that all people have a basic core of empathy and helpfulness, and can we make an appeal on that basis in a song? Does what we call ‘humanity’ exist in that sense, or is everything transactional? Is it all about ‘what’s in it for me.’ I think that’s what this song is about.
When Pat shared her song with us in a songwriting workshop in Roanoke, Virginia, we were all struck by the aptness of the title, “The Windows of Heaven.” To me it says that if we could magically see into the hearts of others, we’d recognize the same desire for a peaceful and nurturing world that we hold in our own hearts — what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’ in his first inaugural address. We used that phrase in our song.
But Pat raised some additional concerns. She wrote,
“All men are created equal, is different than, all men are created with empathy and love in their hearts. Just because we might be able to look into a person’s heart doesn’t mean we will like what we see. I think, if, we could look into the hearts of men, we would merely understand, why they act as they do.
“During the first course of writing some of the lyrics, I know I was placing the focus on, ‘peace begins with me.’ Then the words came, ‘If we could look into the hearts of men.’ So… HOW can we look into the hearts of men? The only way, I thought is to have a ‘heavenly gaze.’ So ... I put us behind the windows of heaven.”
This is a noble thought, and the windows ‘hook,’ the central device of the song, is such a good way to express it. I think we all recognized that in that first hearing in the workshop session. In developing the song, we took on a lot of concerns about how to support our headline in a way that lets the thought speak for itself without seeming to preach.
Compassion means ‘co-suffering,’ ‘feeling for another’ and suggests empathy or ‘feeling as another.’ This hopefully leads to altruism, or an active effort toward a better world. Is there a way to convey that in a song, and does this song do that?
Sam Harris wrote, "It’s more noble to help people purely out of concern for their suffering than it is to help them because you think the Creator of the Universe wants you to do it, or will reward you for doing it, or will punish you for not doing it. The problem with this linkage between religion and morality is that it gives people bad reasons to help other human beings when good reasons are available."
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a Presbyterian minister. In a recent talk about religious conviction he said: "If hope is something that you express through illusion, then it's not hope, it's fantasy."
Hedges acknowledges Dorothy Day as an inspiration for his spirituality. Dorothy Day was also an active journalist, and talked about her social activism in her writings. In 1917 she was imprisoned as a member of suffragist Alice Paul's nonviolent Silent Sentinels. She practiced civil disobedience, which led to additional arrests in 1955, 1957, and in 1973 at the age of seventy-five.
In the 1930s, she co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement and the Catholic Worker newspaper. In this newspaper, she advocated the Catholic economic theory of ‘distributism,’ which she considered a third way between capitalism and socialism. Pope Benedict XVI used her conversion story as an example of how to "journey towards faith in a secularized environment."
In ancient cultures humans had little access to the divine realm. Heaven and Earth were simply separate. Humans could see and be affected by elements of the lower heaven, such as stars and storms, but ordinary mortals could not go to Heaven because it was the abode of the gods alone. The Hebrew Bible depicts Heaven as a place that is inaccessible to humans, although some prophets are occasionally granted temporary visionary access to heaven.
There are strident voices on all sides imploring us to do something better, fairer, more supportive of others, and it can cause us to pull back and react against an appeal that may seem unfair, or never adequately to be satisfied by our honest best efforts.
But the song asks all to simply make one small effort at empathy. One day at a time, one incident at a time. Give yourself the space to take things on as you can, without guilt or its opposite — the hardening of resolve not to hear or feel the concern. The golden rule is not a straitjacket, it's a suggestion, a way to move toward the light.
Here’s our video of the song.
Audio from the 2020 download version. Video by Steve
The sheet music is available in the Steve Gillette Songbook here.
Here are the lyrics and chords:
If we could
If we could
If we could
© 1994 Compass Rose Music, BMI
Photos by Sherry Boas