A few weeks ago, at 6 a.m., I heard a man singing on the streets. I hunted him down, selfishly looking for a good story.
I found two.
He was homeless and blind — 54 years old, on the streets for nine years. I asked him if he needed anything, and he smiled, “Son, just a small favor: Keep the city quiet for a few more hours, will ya?”
“Sure,” I laughed.
I walked away, and the man started singing again.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way…
It was a hymn, I think.
When sorrow, like sea billows, roll…
I walked back to the man; interrupted his song.
“What are you singing?” I asked.
“It is well with my soul.”
Apparently it was the name of the song.
“Why are you singing this?” I asked.
“There’s a story behind the song.”
I waited for him to tell the story — but he didn’t. Instead, he told me, “You know, 20 years ago, today, my wife and my daughter died. I guess I could sing about sadness. Maybe I’m supposed to. But I’m just singing this today.”
Then the man asked to be left alone. So I left.
I tried to write this story for several weeks, but I didn’t know how — I didn’t have a resolution; I didn’t understand why the man was singing. But at church today, I heard the song again, and it prompted me to look up the story behind this song:
In 1873, a man named Horatio Spafford decided to take his family — a wife and four kids — across the Atlantic Ocean for a European vacation. As they were about to leave, Spafford had some business to take care of, so he sent his family ahead of him. But that ship never made it England because it was struck by another boat; 226 people died, including all his kids.
While Spafford was on a boat to England to meet his grieving wife, he wrote that song.
But it’s not about longing for peace — it’s about peace.
It’s so counterintuitive, coming from a grieving man — it’s so hard to make sense of. I guess that’s why I still don’t know how to write this story — how to resolve it. I’ve tried to write dozens of endings to this piece that are poetic, but they all feel so insignificant. I think, ultimately, all I know if that — if I’m ever in the same situation as Spafford or the blind man— I want to be able to sing this song, too. Beyond that, I just don’t know.