Story Behind the Song: “Help Us Understand”

I’d chosen the week of September 10, 2001 to be a solid week of songwriting. I got off to a respectable start that Monday, repurposing a melody I’d had left over from an abandoned musical theatre project by writing new lyrics and adding a musical bridge. The result was a Christmas song, “Santa’s Best”, which would eventually appear on my 2006 Christmas EP, That Time of Year.

Tuesday morning, I was laying in bed while my then-wife had the TV in our bedroom on, like she usually did in the morning while doing her exercises. Instead of the usual music videos, however, there was a news report. They said something about a plane’s having crashed into one of the towers at the World Trade Center in New York City. A few minutes later, we saw the second plane hit the other tower, right there on live TV. They kept replaying the video of that second hit. Something like a half an hour later, there was the report of a third plane crashed into the Pentagon. Perhaps another half an hour later, the TV screen was filled with the crumbling of one of the World Trade Center’s towers, people running from the area of the buildings, the clouds of dust billowing out toward them, and so on. Still a bit later the same thing happened with the second tower. There was also the news of another plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. And, of course, all the video events were repeated, over and over, as new information developed.

Somewhere in the midst of this, I’d gone downstairs, made and eaten breakfast, washed the breakfast dishes, and gone into my studio to start the workday. However, I’d also kept the television on in the family room, which was just outside my studio. I remember there being a foreboding sense of, “what next?” — i.e. expecting that there might be other attacks, perhaps some closer to home here in Southern California — and I frequently found myself going back to the television to check the latest developments.

As you might expect, I didn’t get any songwriting done that day. I’m not sure I got much of anything done. I’m guessing I wasn’t alone in having problems focusing on much of anything else that day. While I’d planned a week of solid songwriting, my mind was too distracted by the events of the day and the thoughts of what might be coming next, and my mental and emotional focus there did not seem conducive to writing pop or country songs. While the notion of writing something topical had at least crossed my mind, I immediately discarded the idea as feeling exploitative or some such thing.

Wednesday morning, I was reading posts on an email list called MixMasters, which focused on music production. People had been sharing thoughts about the day before, and one of the members of the list challenged the members of the group to submit rough drafts of a song to the group, with the idea of doing some kind of musical project to “make a difference”. He referenced “We Are the World” as a model of what he had in mind. There was something about his challenge that made me rethink the idea of writing a topical song. Essentially, I started feeling it was more or less my “duty”, as a songwriter, to write something that might put into words what others might be having a hard time expressing.

I spent most of Wednesday trying to write something. There was a patriotic attempt that most likely would have been called “When Eagles Stand”. I’d jotted down a bunch of phrases and ideas, but nothing that was feeling right to me. There was another that decidedly went in a very clichéd direction, but along the lines of avoiding the temptation to seek revenge. That was keyed off something President Bush said that really rubbed me the wrong way, and the working title was “There’s Got to Be a Better Way”. That went even less far than the first stab. There were a few even less developed ideas — one was just a title and the other only a few lines. Looking back on those notes now, I can see where perhaps something could have developed from those, but I just wasn’t feeling anything at the time.

By the end of Wednesday, I was feeling like I’d given it a try, but I just wasn’t likely to come up with anything that didn’t more or less nauseate me in one way or another. However, I decided I would give it one more full day, Thursday, September 13th, and, if nothing came out, so be it.

At this point, I was really wrestling with my own thoughts on the matter. I’d relatively recently come to the belief that everything that happens, even bad things, is, at some level, part of God’s plan, and thus for the good in the long term. But how could such a horrible set of events possibly fit this notion? There were so many ways of looking at the attacks and the situations surrounding them, but the idea that they could somehow be “for the good” simply did not seem to apply.

With all this conflict relating to the events and my faith floating around my head, my prayer that night was for understanding. How to we understand something like this to be part of God’s plan? I know those same thoughts were still going through my head as I took my morning shower on Thursday, but, by the time I finished doing breakfast dishes, I had the basic idea of where the song needed to go. I made some notes to myself before starting on the first draft of the song:

Concept is dealing with loss and asking for help to understand it as part of God’s plan. The idea is that anything that happens, even tragedies, is part of God’s plan, but we, as human beings, can’t understand it, especially upfront, and maybe even later on. But, if He wanted to, God could help us understand it.

Possibly use three different stories for parts of the song. The first story might be a child who has lost one of his parents, the second a husband or wife who has lost his/her spouse, and the third relating to mass tragedies such as at the World Trade Center.

The concept was essentially putting a voice to my own wrestling with the meaning of this with respect to the notion of “God’s plan”. The story segments idea was initially intended to be three totally separate stories where someone might seek understanding. However, as the song progressed through writing and rewriting, I ended up weaving the three seemingly separate story lines together such that, by the end of the song, they can all be read as parts of the 9/11 story. By the end of the day, I had an almost solid first draft together, albeit with a few areas where I had yet to make decisions between a few alternatives for words or phrases.

On Friday, the 14th, I made my wording decisions and recorded a rough piano/vocal demo. I posted it on a newsgroup called rec.music.makers.songwriting on Saturday, the 15th to get feedback. Through the magic of the Internet’s long-term memory (and Google Groups archives of old Usenet newsgroups), you can read that initial draft here (though the link to the demo has long been obsolete). The feedback on that original draft is also still at the link, including a request from a young singer from Germany named Thomas Blankenstein to perform the song at his vocal recital later that year. He recorded that performance, and it is still available on his Skyliner page on SoundClick. While I’ve had a number of singers perform my songs, this was a particular treat, not only because it was halfway around the world, but also because the recording allowed me to hear the audience’s reaction.

As a result of the feedback I’d received on the lyrics, as well as my own further thoughts, I made a number of revisions over the next few weeks, finally finishing the song on September 29th. Here is the final lyric:


Help Us Understand
words and music by Rick Paul

A little boy in his bedroom
Tears streaming from his eyes
Fell to his knees as he cried
He said, “God, I know you can hear me, and you can do all kinds of things
If I can’t have Mommy back, would you give her angel’s wings”

Oh, Heavenly Father, please help us understand
Why so many suffer in this world that’s in your hands
Though we trust you have your reasons
If this is part of your plan
Oh, please, please, help us understand

A young man from the suburbs
Called his wife from work that day
Said, “tell everybody I’m okay”
Then he paused, and told her he loved her, and she should hug the kids for him
They never saw his face or heard his voice again

Oh, Heavenly Father, please help us understand
Why so many suffer in this world that’s in your hands
Though we trust you have your reasons
If this is part of your plan
Oh, please, please, help us understand

Oh it hurts so much
That it’s hard to go on
One moment here
The next, they’re just gone

Thousands of crying voices were silenced that dark day
All we could do was watch, and pray
So many who tried to help them would sacrifice their lives
As steel and concrete towers crumbled like ice

Oh, Heavenly Father, please help us understand
Why so many suffer in this world that’s in your hands
Though we trust you have your reasons
If this is part of your plan
Oh, please, please, help us understand
Oh, please, please help us understand


While I made a fuller recording of the song in October of 2001, I didn’t actually release a recording of it until almost ten years later, in early September 2011. Have a listen:

While that recording still represents the “official” version of the song, I rarely perform it that way. I started adding an extra verse after the Iraq War broke out in 2003. Backing up a bit, I’d actually drafted an extra verse back in May of 2002, once the war had started in Afghanistan. However, I never finished it to my satisfaction, even if the drafts had a lot in common with the verse I added in 2003. The 2003 verse reads:

A little boy out in Baghdad
Lost both his legs today
How can we tell him it’s okay
“We were just trying to get the bad guys
And the bomb drifted off course
There will be collateral damage in the holiest of wars”

I sing the chorus again after that. I’ve sung it that way ever since, adding a bit of explanation in between the main song and the extra verse. For me, that brings the song full circle, despite its stepping outside the 9/11 story. I think, though, when I sing it this year, I’ll make a slight modification:

A little boy in Aleppo
Lost both his legs today
How can we tell him it’s okay
“We were just trying to get the bad guys
And the bomb drifted off course
There will be collateral damage in the holiest of wars”

As much as I’d like to believe there will never be a need for even further modifications, I know that is unlikely during my lifetime. And that is something I truly need help in understanding.