Remember the media craze surrounding Lauren Caitlin Upton, Miss South Carolina in last month’s Miss Teen USA pageant, the young woman who stumbled into notoriety through a blunder on national television. That episode offered many lessons to reflect on, the first being the idea that we all stand under the bright lights of judgment, dumbstruck and speechless, without a clue how to account for ourselves.
There’s more for us to learn from Caitlin’s gaffe. How did we get to the point where such absurdity draws so much of our attention? Why do we shine the spotlight on rather unremarkable people and then reap some kind of sadistic pleasure when they prove themselves to be seemingly unworthy of our focus?
On the flip side of the same coin, why do we invest so much trust and hope in the supposed heroes of popular culture and then lament the lack of role models when these icons fall from grace?
I want to look at the whole charade of the beauty contest, and the way in which our infatuation with competition in general – the endless, ladder-climbing pursuit of some kind of external validation of our worth, the insatiable desire to be crowned king or queen – ultimately leaves us empty. We’re always trying to “get ahead,” and many of us will stop at nothing to advance our journey to the top.
Can we climb that ladder with integrity or humility, or do the constant moral failures of our most famous competitors suggest to us that something about our priorities and our focus is inherently flawed? What does our obsession with winning do to us, and what does it really mean to be a winner, anyway? What is a hero? A role model?
Last year’s double-Oscar-winning independent film, Little Miss Sunshine, which is itself about a beauty pageant, begins with Richard Hoover, the father and wannabe self-help guru, played by Greg Kinnear, offering the following philosophy of life: “There are two kinds of people in this world – winners and losers.” One film critic notes that at that very moment, Richard’s admitting to himself that he’s a loser. The whole film is really about being a loser and happily owning that status, rather than trying to be something you’re not.
Last night I talked about our need to honestly face the reality that we are lost – that we’re lacking direction and that although we have maps – spiritual aids – in helping us find our way, we don’t have any definite answers. Today, I want to look beyond the way we are lost on our own journeys, and at the way there’s a little bit of loser in all of us. That’s not all we are – in the end, we’re not winners or losers, but simply people.
Yet the loser within us usually shines through when we become so fixated on winning. By striving so narrowly for some kind of external definition of success, all we do is set ourselves up for failure. And we amplify this betrayal of ourselves when we pass onto our children the misguided notion that success is obtainable through superficial awards and crowns – and when we place our hopes in them to obtain for us the illusion of glory that we never garnered. We strip them of any real sense of worth when we lead them to think that winning is what matters most, that the ends of victory justify any means of getting there.
I want to suggest that these Days of Awe are the anti-beauty contest. In a beauty pageant, individuals stand before rather ordinary people who have somehow been granted the role of judges. The contestants implicitly submit to these judges’ authority by saying, “You, oh judges, are so important, so powerful, that your act of placing a crown upon my head will have real significance for me.” On Rosh HaShanah, we stand before the unfathomable and extraordinary Source of Creation and of Compassion and of Justice, and we say, “Oh Judge, You are so important, so powerful, that our act of crowning You will have real significance.” Let’s take the crown off our own heads. Let’s prostrate ourselves before the Eternal Holy Blessed One whose miracles are beyond measure, without Whose power none of us could stand here at all, even for a second.
Being a human hero in the eyes of Torah and our tradition means recognizing that the world does not revolve around us, and that the noblest thing we can do is forego the outward praise of ourselves and instead bestow it upon the One to whom our praise is due. This mentality makes Judaism profoundly countercultural. When all around us we see people reaching for the crown to place it on their own heads, we’re reaching to remove it from ourselves and place it on God.
Now, shunning the winner’s spotlight doesn’t mean that we are losers. That’s precisely the error of black-and-white thinking that Greg Kinear’s character presents us – the idea that if you aren’t taking the crown, then you are somehow weak, a failure. Judaism – especially at this time of year – stresses that by humbly recognizing our shortcomings and weaknesses, we attain a more enduring strength and step not into the “winner’s circle,” but into the “human circle.” Life is not about winning and losing. It’s about living.
This is the final message of Little Miss Sunshine. One reviewer calls the film an “injunction against a society that requires every American to be a winner, when simply being a human being used to be enough.” In the end, we are not winners or losers; we are simply people. As long as we persist in these false distinctions of winners and losers, we guarantee that some people are left irrelevant and less than human. The problem with beauty contests isn’t that they expose ordinary, fallible people like Lauren Caitlin Upton for the human beings they are; if anything, that’s their saving grace – their real beauty! The problem is that they delude us into thinking that the contestants are something more than what they are. The less we push people to celebrate distinctions that are themselves irrelevant – how pretty someone is, how well someone can offer a thirty-second answer to a question that has nothing to do with her actual skills or strengths – the more we give them the chance to actually be themselves.
Richard Hoover’s father, Grandpa, played by Alan Arkin, offers a different take. He claims that “Losers are people who are so afraid of not winning, they don’t even try.” This wisdom bears repeating: “Losers are people who are so afraid of not winning, they don’t even try.”
Interestingly, a sense of the truth in Judaism’s anti-winner, countercultural message has spawned a fascination in the opposite direction – there’s a trend in our society to jump on the “loser” bandwagon: Many of those who lose on American Idol wind up gaining more attention than the winners. We also have a perverse attraction to the celebrity meltdown. The countless run-ins with law enforcement, the checking into drug rehab, the public apologies, the scandals of cheating, lying, and steroid use – they all seem to suggest that the supposed winners have now shown their true colors as losers – even though we remove all color and gray from the picture when we slip into such black and white thinking. We imagine these fallen stars are giving us permission to laugh at them, while secretly we are identifying with them for the fallible human beings they are.
Caitlin Upton’s blunder attracted thousands of people to deride her apparent lack of intelligence. This attention suggested that a) we could really discern someone’s true intelligence from a superficial pageant, especially from a moment in which she froze under pressure, and b) that it mattered that a pretty young woman somehow wasn’t also brilliant. Who cares? The people running the pageant clearly didn’t – here’s the question they posed to the eventual winner, Miss Colorado, Hilary Carol Cruz: “Who do you admire most and why – Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, or Nicole Ritchie?” Clearly, there’s no vested interest in hearing these young woman reflect on anything of substance.
No wonder Caitlin was caught off-guard by a question that required her to think. The problem isn’t that she’s incapable of thinking – we’ll probably never know because of the script that society has handed her for her role in which her physical beauty has typecast her. The problem is that we shepherd people into these stereotyped roles and tell them, on one hand, that certain traits they possess are the only ones that matter while on the other hand, we say, “you can be everything to all people. And, in fact, you must be, in order to matter.” Like in the Simon and Garfunkel song Mrs. Robinson, “any way you look at it, you lose.”
Why are we holding up young, vulnerable people – who’ve received disproportionate attention because of one trait, such as their looks – as false promises of perfection? Is it because we know they can’t fulfill that promise and we really want to see them fail? Many people responded to Caitlin’s gaffe by saying she “disgraced America.” Come on! The disgrace is the focus on pageantry and the crowing of beauty queens in the first place. The disgrace is the way we rushed to focus on this story, rather than the stories of real suffering, loss, and injustice that plague our society.
Somehow we’re more comfortable seeing failure we can laugh at than seeing success – and certainly more than any failure we might actually be able to take some responsibility for and help change. It’s easy to identify it in someone else. And it certainly draws more headlines than success stories or substantive discussion of real problems. As one blogger pointed out, “If Miss Illinois gave a splendidly mature and nuanced answer to a question about global warming,” no one’s passing that around the internet. Why do we choose this path? Because we like setting people up for failure? Because we can’t stand to see success when we’re not the ones in the spotlight? Because we can never trust that anyone is as great as he or she seems?
I would like to suggest that we steer ourselves back to the center – away from the extreme reaction of celebrating the loser and away from obsession with the winner; then we can arrive at a modest celebration of real people, recognizing talent and success when it truly emerges, but also recognizing that people are not just their successes or their failures. They are human beings with both strengths and weaknesses, always growing, always working to refine themselves towards being more human. Not more than human – simply more human; more real.
I think of two athletes – one who has tried to be more than human, the other who proved that he was more human. Baseball’s new career home-run king, Barry Bonds, seems to have stolen his crown by rebelling against his own humanity and fallibility. Humility does not appear to be part of his vocabulary. Contrast this model with Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, who knew when it was time to bow gracefully out of the spotlight. It was the end of May in 1989 when Schmidt, at 39, was hitting a meager .203 with six homers. He was 7th on the all-time home run list, and I remember hoping he would continue to climb the ladder of statistical success. How shocked I was when I saw him crying at a press conference, announcing his sudden retirement: “Over the years,” he said, “I’ve set high standards for myself …, and I always said that when I couldn’t live up to those standards I would retire. … I no longer have the skills needed to make adjustments at the plate to hit or to make some plays in the field and run the bases. … I feel like I could ask the Phillies to keep me on to add to my statistics, but my love for the game won’t let me do that.” As a teenager, I didn’t quite understand this running from the supposed glory of increased statistical success. But I’ve never forgotten that speech, and I now see it as a noble display of humility and integrity.
A year later, Schmidt spoke at a special night in his honor, and offered the following wisdom: “All kids need heroes, … every young child. This is especially important now when children are more vulnerable than during any other period in history. I hope I have ‘touched’ kids in a positive way. To me everyone who wears a uniform carries the responsibility of becoming a positive role model. … This is more important than any home run, any play, or any statistic. All these fade with time. But being a positive role model both on and off the field helps others become better human beings.” The world needs more Mike Schmidts, people who see that life is not about winning or losing, but about living.
Our Biblical Mike Schmidt is the patriarch Jacob. He wrestles with a divine being throughout the night, injures his hip-socket, and then retires from the contest – not as a winner in the conventional sense, but as one who gave it his best shot and stayed in the fight till morning. He receives no jolt of super-human strength and he knows he can’t continue – it’s time to step back into the real world and live. So he exits the contest – without any crown or public honor – but with a new name that, the angel tells him, means he is one who struggles and has proven himself capable. The name is Yisrael, Israel. This is our name. We are ones who struggle and prove ourselves capable. Jacob isn’t awarded the title of winner – he simply becomes more human, limping away, much more Mike Schmidt than Barry Bonds.
Ultimately, of course, our goal is not to be Mike Schmidt or Jacob or any other role model. Our goal is simply to be ourselves. The Chasidic master Reb Zusya, crying on his deathbed, explained to his disciples his greatest fear. “I am afraid of what God will ask me when I die. I know God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not like Abraham?’ … or ‘Why were you not like Moses?’ But when God looks upon me and says, ‘Zusya, my child – why were you not Zusya?’ What shall I say then?”
I’d like to think that at that moment of judgment, Zusya could find upon his head a crown that celebrates the glory of his having been himself. And then he would reach for the crown, humbly remove it, place it upon the Almighty where it truly belongs, and limp away – not a winner or loser, but one who was fully human. May we all in this coming year come closer to achieving the potential of complete and imperfect humanity that is God’s greatest gift to us all.