American Idol and Humility by Libby DuPont

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dupont_libbyResolution season is over. The plastic storage bins have been filled, we’ve lost our 5-10 holiday pounds (or have given up on doing so) and we are now ready to move on to the next cultural season: midyear TV show premiers. One of the most popular is American Idol. For any of you not familiar with the flow of this show, I’ll summarize. It’s a talent competition for singers. The first phase consists in watching the judges in their auditions of hundreds of hopefuls. Of those, a set number get to go to Hollywood to compete. As the weeks go on, the numbers dwindle as viewers vote for their favorite, with it culminating in one lucky person getting crowned American Idol in the spring at the end of the season.

What I cannot tolerate watching for more than a few minutes is the first phase, in which we eavesdrop on the preliminary auditions. They love to highlight for TV the absolute worst contestants, especially those who have the greatest discrepancy between how good they think they are and how painfully bad they actually are. It is not uncommon for Simon, the very direct British judge, to get cursed out to his face and then off camera by some contestant who was convinced that he was the next American Idol, and that Simon is an idiot that doesn’t know greatness when he sees it.

Some think that these untalented hopefuls are putting on an outrageous act just to get on TV. One radio talk show host I have heard, though, disagrees. He has shared that in his days as a program director at a Christian music station, he encountered many such sincere people who were convinced that they were the next Michael W. Smith, but who really weren’t good enough to even put on the air.

I concur, and that is why I can’t watch it. It’s just too awkward for me. I work with teenagers. If I wanted awkward, I’d go to work! But many others can’t get enough, which causes me to ask why.

Here’s my best guess: we humans inherently long for virtue. If it’s true that the Idol contestants that are terrible really think they are great, then they lack the virtue of humility. There is something satisfying about watching the proud fall.

It is important to point out that humility is not self deprecation, but viewing things as they are. It would not be humble for Josh Groban to pretend he can’t sing. Humility is inherently attractive in people. It is endearing to see someone who is very accomplished at something accept compliments graciously. One example that comes to mind is the Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger who landed US Air flight 1549 in the Hudson River just over a year ago. His reply to all the kudos he received for his skill which saved the lives of everyone on board? Simply that he, a former fighter pilot, had been trained for such a thing, and that he had a tremendous crew.

Of course the opposite is also true. Pride, the opposite of humility and the inordinate love of self, is inherently repulsive to us. How many legitimately talented sports or entertainment figures irritate us because they seem to believe the world revolves around them? Even if someone is the most successful at their trade, no one likes to hear people blather on about how good they are.

Humility is walking in truth. It means realizing that first and foremost we owe everything to God. We are dependent on him for literally everything. It is he who keeps the sun shining and our little blue marble spinning around it at exactly the right angle to keep it hospitable for humans. It is he who provides for our food and shelter. More importantly, though, we would be spiritually dead if not for his grace. We cannot do a good deed or entertain a good thought if God had not first inspired it.

So, while it is right for someone like Josh Groban or Captain Sullenberger to accept compliments about their successful careers, it is also right for them to keep a low profile about it. After all, they did not choose to be born with their talents, as talent is a gift from God. They didn’t choose to be born into families that could provide opportunities to develop their talents; that was a gift from God. Even the hours of hard work they invested in their craft were motivated by virtue, and enabled by God. They should be glad at their accomplishments, but keep them in perspective.

In a culture that extols self esteem as its own virtue, humility is refreshing to see in people. It is also very freeing to the one who possesses it. If I acknowledge God as the giver of all good things, and people as better or worse cooperators with what they’ve been given, then I do not have to feel bad about myself for things I have no control over. I don’t need to be the best singer, or airline pilot or entrepreneur. I just have to be me. Plenty of saints were totally mediocre at school or work. What they were great at was holiness. A first big step toward holiness? Humility.

One final thought. The Latin root of the word humility is humus, or earth. We need to realize we are dirt and to dirt we will return. While this may seem demeaning, or depressing, it’s the honest truth. If we want to get even more harsh, we could add some dung into the mix. But any gardener knows that dung plus dirt equals fertile ground. It is only when we are humble that the seeds of God’s grace can grow in our hearts.

So, maybe you should not treat anyone outside your bathroom to your vocal stylings. That’s okay. Seek to impress not some tactless English music producer but the God who made you and loved you enough to hang on a cross to save your life. It doesn’t make for good TV, but it could get you canonized.

Copyright 2010 Libby DuPont

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1 Comment

  1. I like your take on the Idol auditions, Libby. I’ve often thought the show does a good job of showing the dark side of an over-emphasis on self-esteem – or at least what’s taken for self-esteem nowadays. Pursuing your goals requires an honest assessment of talents which some of the auditioners simply don’t have. Happily, the contestants who go farther in the show generally don’t have this problem. I’ve had the opportunity to interview several of them and they’ve definitely been humble people.

    Thanks again for a great take on Idol.

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