Hamilton and the unsettling sense of urgency

Last month, out of curiosity, I looked up the soundtrack for Hamilton, a successful musical that came out last year. It tells the story of Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution, with a lot of refreshingly modern elements, (for example, replacing monologues with hip-hop riffs and cabinet meetings with rap-battles). I only expected to listen to a song or two, but got caught away in the story and listened to the whole thing, start to finish.

What’s more, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I continued listening to it over and over again. I’m not that into music these days, so this behavior was fairly unprecedented and somewhat embarrassing.

The story spoke to me on so many levels, but there’s one theme in particular that I want to think through and process.

Hamilton’s an underdog with a lot to prove. An orphan-immigrant, raised in poverty, but ambitious, with a “million things [he] hasn’t done, but just you wait!” Central to his identity is the idea that he wants to do great things.

Throughout the story, he works with a sense of urgency that is surprising to his peers. When he writes over 50 of the federalist papers himself, they ask “why do you write, like you’re running out of time?”

And it’s like that for everything he does. He’s always busting his chops, writing, debating, working on his financial plan… everything he does, he does with a sense of urgency. He’s non-stop.

It’s a curse, and he knows it. He himself says, “I’m never satisfied” and compares himself to Macbeth. He can’t seem to pull himself away, to take a break or spend time with his wife, who confesses that just having “a fraction of [his] time” would “be enough” for her.

The thing is, you can hardly blame him. He lived in a very uncertain world, one where he had already almost died by the sickness that took his mother, the hurricane that devastated his town, and the war that killed his friend. He knew how fragile life was. How could those experiences not affect you?

It’s like he knew that his life would be tragically cut short.

These things affect us, especially those of us who have lost friends and family early. I’ve mostly been fortunate in that regard, but last year when I learned that one of my missionary companions had been killed at age 28, I couldn’t help but think of all the things he didn’t get a chance to do, and how easily it could have been me.

Even Eliza, Hamilton’s wife… the one person who could be satisfied with the simple things in her life, can’t help but be affected by the untimely death of her husband and son. “I stopped wasting time on tears,” she says, and carries on his legacy, working with that same sense of urgency he had. She writes, she raises money, she starts an orphanage, and through all this asks, “what would [he] do if [he] had more time?”, and wondering, as he once did, “when my time is up, have I done enough?”

I think that’s what gets me the most. Life is so short, and we have so much potential, that there’s a constant tension between being satisfied with what we have, and anxious about what we still want to do. That tension ebbs and flows but it never goes away. And Hamilton’s story communicates that better than any other I’ve seen.