Get Into the Game

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A lot of rock stars try to be cool and rebellious.

Not many aspire to forge partnerships with business, religious, and political leaders in order to eradicate AIDS, poverty, and malaria in Africa. 

Bono, the lead singer and chief creative force of the Irish super group U2, somehow manages to do both.

Underneath it all is a radical trust in God that was born of heartbreak.

Born in Dublin as Paul David Hewson, he lost his mother when he was 14 years old. She collapsed at the funeral of her own father and died three days later. In grief, Hewson began to act out. His teachers and fellow students even named him “Antichrist.”

He received little support from his father, whose unspoken message to his children was “to dream is to be disappointed.”

The kid with the incredible ability to link words and music decided to dream anyway. 

Bono (short for Bono Vox, or “good voice,” a nickname bestowed by his guitar-playing friends) was somehow drawn to the Bible, especially the Psalms. He later reflected: “First of all, David [the author of about half the Psalms] is a musician, so I’m gonna like him… And what’s so powerful about the Psalms are, as well as there being Gospel and songs of praise, they are also the Blues.”

In the Psalms, Bono found a spiritual basis for crying, pleading, protesting, rebelling, and hoping against hope – all of which he has incorporated into U2’s playlist over the past four-and-a-half decades. He and the group have won 22 Grammys, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during their first year of eligibility.  

Bono is the great rock enigma. 

On the one hand, he’s cool. He played himself on an episode of The Simpsons. It doesn’t get much cooler than that.

But his signature “look” of wearing sunglasses 24/7 isn’t a fashion statement. It’s actually a strategy to cope with glaucoma. 

Against all odds, he’s been married to the same woman, Alison, for 42 years. Together they’ve raised two sons and two daughters. “A is for Ali. If her name were Zena, I’d start the alphabet with her anyway. Everything for me starts with her. Marriage is a grand madness. It’s like jumping off a very tall building and discovering you can fly.”

Not many rock stars say things like that.

Bono writes and performs the vast majority of U2’s songs. They defy easy categorization, shifting seamlessly from protest to praise, exasperation to joy. No one disagrees that he is one of the world’s most impassioned singers. As Spin magazine put it, he has mastered “the full whisper-to-shout range of blues mannerisms.” 

Check out the band’s contagious energy in Vertigo, a song that topped the global charts in 2005, the same year that Bono was named one of Time magazine’s Persons of the Year.

The song is a cry of the heart, one in which (according to Bono), “you’re just looking around and you see big, fat Capitalism at the top of its mountain, just about to topple.  [Vertigo] is that woozy, sick feeling of realizing that here we are, drinking, eating, polluting, robbing ourselves to death…” 

What’s the remedy for vertigo? The character in the song sees a girl wearing a cross (she has “Jesus ‘round her neck”), and according to Bono he “just stares at the cross in order to steady himself.”

Bono has been staring at the cross for a very long time. In a 2013 interview he declared that Christ was either who he claimed to be or he was “a complete and utter nutcase.” His decision to enroll as a disciple of Jesus has given him both the courage and the motivation to address the soul-crushing challenges of the African continent. 

A few critics carp that he’s just another rock star trying to get attention by throwing his celebrity weight around.

Bono replies, “You can talk if you want. Or you can get into the game.” 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that he’s become one of the world’s few transforming players when it comes to justice issues, putting an end to Developing World debt, battling AIDS, and breaking the cycles of generational poverty.

But that’s what happens when someone tells you that to dream is to be disappointed.

And you decide to dream anyways.