Haven’t we all been Susan Boyle?

Susan_Boyle_Nov_2009Photo by Deborah Wilbanks (OTRS submission by Deborah Wilbanks) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I like to find instances of Zen in pop culture where people have never heard of Zen; I think it shows that in Buddhism we are interested in a basic capacity of the mind, of all minds, a tendency to deconstruct delusion.

Along these lines, it’s always nice to have what you think is going on, turn out to be not what is going on. This is particularly so when what you think is going on is embarrassing or sad. This is the basic Buddhist enlightenment story: that what is going on is more interesting than you think.

So, I am not my thoughts and it’s good to be skeptical of what I think. Changing my mind or my heart is usually a movement towards freedom. One of the big things to be skeptical of is social approval: A lot of great teachers have been outsiders and spent their time being embarrassing or embarrassed.

Here is a nice pop culture turn-around from Britain. Everyone knows about the Scots spinster Susan Boyle winning “Britain’s Got Talent,” or at least making it to the next round and going viral on Youtube. (Here’s the famous video.)

Her story hits all these notes — there is embarrassment, outsider status, and also the experience that what is really happening is much more interesting than what you think.

Susan Boyle lives with her cat, is unemployed, a church volunteer, has a high dowdiness quotient, no hairdo except gray and wild. She tries to get accepted by the judges in a clueless, embarrassing way. When they ask about her age, she wiggles her hips, pretending she’s sexy when she isn’t really about that, because she thinks that’s what they want, when they don’t; they are just hazing her. It’s an amazing, make-you-squirm-and-break-your-heart depiction of outsider status. She is the person whose efforts to fit in are the thing that fatally excludes them — something I haven’t seen as thoroughly performed since high school.

And then she sings, and you want her to keep singing. I want to listen and also to savor the wrongness of my first reaction, and my enjoyment in being wrong, my relief in being free from having such a silly opinion of another person in the first place.

As in a cartoon, Susan Boyle blows everyone away and they all vow to be kinder to awkward people in future. She seemed so confident and modest and even oblivious in the social obstacle course that the judges set up, that I grew curious and did more research. It turns out that she is handicapped — birth trauma, anoxia. And not trained to sing like that. So her story starts to deconstruct again, to drift toward the way we, as humans, can be beautiful under all sorts of adverse conditions while nonetheless the adverse conditions persist. Another Zen point — that adverse conditions do not detract from the fact of you.

I wonder if being recognized will ruin her perfectly good life. It has already gotten her a hairdo and new leather jacket and perhaps she is now in danger of being acceptable. Meanwhile it’s a lot of fun.



  1. Ashby says

    Yah, my notions about others tend to favour the ideal, they default to how perfect the life of the movie-producing mother at my son's school must be, or how perfect the life of the woman who owns the magazine store must be, or the perfect life of the single mother/academic going on sabattical to France with her children next year and then, purely by chance, without any digging or wanting to pop the perception on my part, I am made aware of a flaw in its surface, a misfortune, that leads in all likelihood to a soft and hurt centre and suffering on that person's part and I am sad for both of us that it is not as it appeared. There's typcially also a bit of relief from my "perfect" default; knowing that we're all fundamentally hurting units.

    • says

      Hi Ashby,
      So far so good, yes. The thing I'd add to that is that there's no need to be sad for the imperfection— it's endearing and connects us and might not be an imperfection to the person holding it. If it is something that is happening then it's more interesting than something that I think could or should be happening. So seeing the flaw gives us back our own lives and a kindness toward what we think of as our limitations. And still so far so good. After that we can have the lives we really have and find them beautiful, just as we find Susan Boyle, disabled as she is, beautiful.

  2. Sylvia says

    I had an almost opposite experience from the Susan Boyle moment. It was my first day in college and I anxiously waited for my new roommate to show up. She finally arrives and she's tall and stunningly beautiful. I thought, 'sheet, she's overwhelming, I'll never get a date.' Then she opened her mouth and out came the sound of Long Island. I relaxed, warmed up immediately, realized my prejudice and embarrassment at being less than the beauty she was—or that her beauty was going to shadow my world and hopes. Sorry for such a banal story, but there it is.

    • says

      Hi Sylvia

      I like that story, nothing banal about it, it's the folk poetry of the mind to think those things and then to notice and even appreciate them is always freeing,

    • says

      Hi Sylvia

      I like that—it's always nice when I find out that the world is more interesting than I was imagining—more welcoming too. That little demolition is something I think of as a moment of clarity, a little shard of enlightenment,

  3. David Larsson says

    This poem once appeared on a Jerry Jeff Walker album cover:

    Insults and Apologies to a Seagull
    By John Sweethardt
    As told by Francis Carlisle
    You are structurally unsound.
    You wobble on that ferry boat piling on your rickety legs.
    What makes you so awkward?
    Why are you such a dodder?
    brurr brurr brurr brurr brurr brurr
    (Ferry boat pulls off)
    My apologies to you Mr. Seagull.
    Did I say awkward?
    I saw no far arching wings.
    Did I say rickety legs?
    I saw no flit float flutter loll.
    Did I say such a word as dodder?
    You who can float absolutely atune to the wind.
    And wait not quite ready,
    Not quite,
    Waiting for that long swift plunge to the churned waters.
    My apologies to you Mr. Seagull.
    I didn't know you.

  4. Gael Belden says

    Hey John,
    Found you here after checking to see when the June sesshin is at PZI. One of these days…
    I wanted to respond to your post because I have had, recently, an experience of just what you are talking about. I am recovering from facial paralysis and at one point I had only one eye that was sort of working. It was interesting – all of my constructs of how I look, am perceived, just fell away. What was cool is that, along with the pain and immobility, I mostly had waves of joy and humor. Things became very funny to me. Lovely to see that what remained had nothing to do with anything external. And it is lovely to have two eyes again. And a workable cheek.
    Cheers to you.

  5. Jenny says

    The thing is John she believes in herself so deeply she makes everyone else look like fools.