"Make no judgments where you have no compassion." -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Like millions of people around the world, I became aware of Susan Boyle this past week. Given that I avoid anything involving Simon Cowell or reality television shows, it was highly unlikely that I would have stumbled across the video of her singing but for the fact that four different people sent me links to it within a day and a half. All of which carried subject lines related to "You have got to see this!" And they were right.
The first time I watched it, I felt a mild horror at how both the audience and the judges were openly mocking her, laughing at her and patronizing her. This feeling changed to absolute delight when she opened her mouth to sing and put them all to shame. And over all, I shed a few happy, hopeful tears for her, for others like her, and perhaps for myself.
As the phenomenon spread, I saw and heard many comments about not judging a book by its cover or cheering for an underdog. All of which had an element of truth to them. Yet most of these same comments prefaced themselves with unflattering descriptions of her physical appearance. All of this got me thinking.
One of the things I wondered about first was why in the world these people in the theater thought they were behaving in an acceptable manner? Perhaps it was related to a mob mentality in some way. One smirk leading to another making it somehow all right to laugh out loud at her. I believe that most of these same people would never do anything like that were they to meet Ms. Boyle face-to-face, alone, in another setting. Had they crossed paths with her at the grocery store, whatever opinion they might form about her, it would never occur to most people to share it in such a brutal way.
I imagine that there were others in that audience who did not mock her, but they probably pitied the poor woman who had such naivete as to think she should be on that stage. I also feel very certain that no one sat up straight and leaned forward in their seats in anticipation of what she might do. I don't believe that I would have, had I been there. To everyone's eternal credit, they very quickly recognized their error and proceeded to cheer much louder than they had jeered.
Many of the comments that I heard and read bemoaned the fact of societal emphasis on the superficialities of appearance and age. They also suggested that Susan had put an end to all of that. To me, that was too much hyperbole for what had occurred. I have no doubt that some of the people who were there will give more thought to their responses to others, at least for a little while. But to suggest that society as a whole will be changing its attitudes based on this one pleasant lady with a beautiful voice is not realistic. These attitudes didn't embed themselves overnight and they won't be dislodged that quickly either.
There were comments from people who clearly identified with her due to their age or appearance or unrealized dreams. And I felt moved beyond words in recognizing what a large number of people marginalize themselves because society and its standards have led them to lose hope. And then by the opposite realization that society as a whole has also short changed itself by suppressing the contributions of those who do not fit the preferred standard. That suppression must be quite large since so few of us look like the airbrushed "perfection" of entertainers. And I wondered at how much we have all missed out on.
I would have liked to have seen an acknowledgment of her courage and her confidence in her own gifts in the comments I read. Long before anyone else became aware of her, she knew precisely what her age was, how she looked and that many would dismiss her because of those things. It takes a great deal of courage to put oneself out there. How much harder must it be when one is pelted with constant messages from the culture that you don't quite rate? When she sang, she became one with her voice and the song, quickly lifting everyone to a place where only the music mattered. No doubt, she has taken herself to that same place over the years and, perhaps, it is from that place that her confidence sprang.
She is a very talented woman who has bucked the odds against her and deserves the accolades that she is getting. And while I don't believe that she has turned the tide of the petty criteria that society frequently applies to people, I do believe she has given us more than just the gift of her music. It is entirely possible that someone who was very judgmental about others will think twice and reconsider before criticizing. And it may be that someone else out there, who hasn't dared to step forward and claim their own dreams, will be empowered to try to reach for them again. And in those ways, Susan Boyle has given gifts beyond that of her talent. There is no way of knowing if that will be the case, but I certainly hope it is.
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