Haven’t we all been Susan Boyle?

John Tarrant looks at Susan Boyle as pop culture example of embarrassment and social acceptance.

John Tarrant
29 April 2009
Photo 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.


John Tarrant

John Tarrant

John Tarrant, Roshi, directs the Pacific Zen Institute, a community where koan meditation, the arts, and deep conversations meet daily practice and life. He is the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros & Other Zen Koans that Will Save Your Life.