You are Beautiful, You are Unique: The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman, a musical that tells the story of P.T. Barnum (the circus guy), is more than entertainment; it is somehow an image of both the way the world is and the way that it should be. Not since Titanic reentered theaters in 3-D in 2012 have I sat in a theater until after the credits ended, both questioning and affirming my life and the way in which I approach the world. This movie is a feat of music, dance, and art, and it is also a feat of the heart.

Here are a few things it taught me.

It is so hard to feel special. As a child Barnum is orphaned and homeless. He is not taught to dream, but he dreams anyway; he has the unshakeable feeling that he’s destined for something great. He uses charm and wit that, to the audience, are so clearly qualities of a remarkable person, and yet he doesn’t seem to see these qualities in himself. Even after he has success he finds it nearly impossible to be happy. Got a 500-pound man? Make him 750. Got a circus? You’re missing the European opera sensation. In reaching for bigger and better things, Barnum strays farther and farther away from his essence and from the people he loves. Coming from so little as a child, it is next to impossible for him to escape his lasting shame to feel proud of what he has done. Once he realizes what matters, though, it’s no coincidence that he makes his success with only the people he loves and a tent. Feeling special isn’t about having the best spot in Manhattan or the most famous star in the world; it’s about the intangibility of believing that your specialness is true.

What is most human about us has nothing to do with color or class. This almost feels too obvious to write, but a scan of any newspaper shows that this truth can’t be taken for granted. We see this truth throughout the movie: Zac Efron and Zendaya’s love; Barnum’s reception among the New York socialites; the tension between the circus “freaks” and the protestors who wanted them to stay away, to stay hidden. Even Barnum falls prey to this way of thinking at one of his lowest points, forbidding the circus performers from joining him at his recently earned cocktail hour with the social elites. In response, the circus performers stand up for their humanity and their right to exist just as much as the people who make up their audiences. They remind us through song that everyone is a person, no matter what you look like, whether you’re paying or getting paid.

“You are unique. You are beautiful.” In developing his venture, Barnum interviews people who have lived in the shadows: a bearded lady; Siamese twins; a man with a tattooed face. He delights in what makes each person unique, but he also acknowledges that the world shuns them. This is most apparent when he first calls at the home of the midget. At first he tries a bit of a harsh approach: “they’re laughing anyway, kid, so you might as well get paid.” When this argument flops, Barnum changes course, appealing to the man’s personal feelings and desires. That’s what does it. Upon finding the bearded lady, he says, “You are unique. You are beautiful,” to this woman who literally hides her face. After similar encouragement, the whole circus crew grows into a family strengthened by love and freedom from judgment, exhibiting a microcosm of what can happen in a society in which everyone puts the most unique part of themselves proudly on display.

Movies tell us what we want them to tell us. I strongly believe that the stories we tell both reflect and build our society. It is no surprise to me that this film, which has been in development since 2009, finally found its place in 2017. This year, far more than in the last eight, American citizens and artists have felt called to tell stories about people who questioned lines drawn between colors and classes, people who were celebrated for being different, people who found ways to feel special and to be true to themselves. The fact that this movie finally arrived this year shows how desperately our society is in need of these ideals and how hungry we are to see them fulfilled.

Let’s all promise to see each other’s uniqueness and beauty and to see our own, and to work toward a world that looks just a little bit more, in a good way, like a circus.

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PS: Honorable mentions to look out for in case you haven’t seen the movie yet:

  • Female empowerment: I got really nervous for a second that Zac was doing the classic rom-com male in pursuit, but Zendaya was a boss.
  • How to approach critics: president, I’m looking at you. Barnum actually becomes friends with his biggest critic. They don’t agree, but they both make each other better and force each other to see the world in new and different ways.
  • The way status is symbolized by hats: wearing them, not wearing them, switching them, sitting on them. It’s pretty awesome.
  • A range of musical styles and dance inspirations (I personally spotted MJ and Beyonce; what else did you see?), just another reflection of accepting all kinds of people and of this movie showing us exactly what we needed to see in 2017

This Week, I Found My Story.

This is the longest I have gone since starting my blog without posting anything, and there’s a simple reason: I have had nothing to say.

I thought that if I moved to an exciting place and started an exciting job, I would in no time have an exciting story. In reality, almost the opposite happened: I was so busy with my new move and my new work that I didn’t have the time to stop, to think deeply, to feel intensely. That was an issue, because the writing I do can only come out of moments of jarring realizations or perspective-giving comparisons. It turns out that moving “forward” doesn’t automatically make a person wiser… so what was I supposed to do now?

There’s a Ted Talk about how, to most effectively be alive, we should try often to be scared. The logic goes something like this: biologically, life is what happens when your heart is pumping, your blood is flowing, your brain is awake and your eyes are opened. Therefore, we need to put ourselves in situations that make us feel all of these things in order to do our best at being alive. It just so happens that these things come from moments that challenge and surprise and scare us.

This week, for the first time in a long time, my life was full of those moments. I allowed myself to hope that our country was sprinting toward positive change, and I allowed myself to cry and to hurt when we slammed straight into a wall. I allowed myself to grieve with people I didn’t know, to process with young people dedicating their lives to service. I reconnected with old friends and family and we allowed ourselves to share hopes and fears and dreams. This week has been light on work, heavy on hope and heart and fear and pain and love and love and love. That’s why this week I finally have something to say.

I have this thing where I believe that things are good. I believe that nobody would have created a world that didn’t have the capacity to be beautiful. I believe that there’s always a way to be better, to be stronger. I believe that love will win and fear will lose. These beliefs are the core of my being, my spiritual oxygen. And this week, when our country chose fear over love, that idealistic core was rocked. More than disappointment, more than fear, I felt devastating confusion; I didn’t know how to believe the things that make me want to be alive and also believe what’s happening in the world that I see with my wide-open eyes.

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As this happened, I was in a different city with a whole bunch of people who hadn’t expected such a blow. We were gathered for a conference and the entire group was so distraught that the day’s programming was canceled. Part of me wanted to disappear from sight and dissolve into my own confusion, but instead I accepted an invitation to travel with new acquaintances to high schools to hear about the day’s experiences there. In speaking with educators and idealists, I found my own voice. I found solace. I was surrounded by thoughtfulness, empathy, and hope. But most of all, I was welcomed by people I had never met simply because we all cared.

I don’t typically find it easy to forge connections but on that day it was effortless. I found that honesty and a true desire to understand another person’s experience are really all we need to open up with one another. I practiced those same principles when I reunited later with old friends: our ground rule was honesty, and we learned about pieces of each other that none of us had been able to share- or hear- before. I even achieved one of my 101 Goals: buy a meal for a homeless person and eat it with them. In a Philadelphia Dairy Queen, I connected with a 59-year-old woman over health and love and travel and surprise birthdays but mostly over the fact that we were simply two people trying to add a little bit of good to this world.

That’s why now I have something to say, and that’s why my heart is full. This week my world took blow after blow, but redirecting these hits into honesty and connection has made my heart pound, my brain awaken, my eyes open more than any job or any city ever could.

I may not have answers about all of the things I’d like to learn from life. I don’t even have answers for everything life threw at me this week. But one thing I know is that we cannot be equipped to take life’s punches without a sense of what kind of life we’re each fighting to lead in the first place. At least for me, it turns out that that life is not about where I am or what I do for a living. Life is about being scared and being pushed and turning challenge into change, turning fear into love. That’s where I find my life, and that’s where I find my story.

All I Ask For is Your Consideration

Here it is, my very first guest post! This is written by the highly intelligent, highly talented Mr. Chris Dennis. Thanks for trusting me with your words, Chris.

I do not want your sympathy, nor do I want your hair-trigger reaction in an attempt to defend a belief that was never attacked. I don’t want your praise and I don’t want your claims of allyship and empathy that primarily serve to validate your “greatness” and to make you look “cool” among your peers. I don’t want your arguments that only have the way you have been treated in this lifetime as a source. I don’t want to be written off because my opinion differs from yours. I don’t need your rebuttals that are laced with insults and elusive quotations from your religious leader that lack evidence and relevance to the situation at hand.

All I ask for is your consideration.

I do not sit here typing this out to insult or to cause harm. I sit here because every day I wake up and I read comment after comment and tweet after tweet of people carelessly preaching their opinions to all who will listen without taking a moment, just a second, to think. I sit here because I hope that even just one person will read this and will be inspired to make a change, no matter how small. I was not always aware of all the hurt my words and actions caused and I never fully will be, but I’ll be damned if I don’t try. Treating others with respect, or even just treating them as fellow human beings, takes nothing from you and it does a whole lot more good than being hateful and malicious.

All I ask for is your consideration.

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Yes, I am angry. I am outraged that every day there seem to be more and more people who have fallen victim to injustice than I even have time to mourn for. That it does not matter if we scream or we whisper, our voices just don’t seem to be heard. That my family and friends and their friends’ and families’ lives are at risk of becoming another means of getting ratings, attention, or laws passed. Are at risk of joining the ever rising body count because of their existence. Are at risk of losing someone dear to them because an assumption was made.

All I ask for is your consideration.

When you developed your opinions on certain topics, did consider the facts and statistics and then draw conclusions from an objective point of view? When you made jabs at a person because their thoughts differ from yours, did you take the time to consider where their viewpoint came from?

When you talked to your family about your love interest, did you consider that a conversation about their gender never occurred? When you watched movies did you ever consider that the majority, if not all, of the cast looks just like you? When you went to a friend’s house did you ever consider that that friend’s parents didn’t prevent you from coming over because of the color of your skin? When you told people of your dreams and aspirations did you consider that no ever one told you people of your gender can’t do that?

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When you attempted to make your skin darker or make your lips bigger did you ever consider that those very traits were first popular as insults used to belittle an entire race? When you forced yourself on that person because they didn’t give you what you wanted, did you ever consider that they had wants too, wants that did not involve you? When you continued to go to school and told others to stop complaining did you consider that your life was not threatened if you attended, solely because of the way you were born? When you said that racism doesn’t exist did you use your own life as an example, or did you consider the millions of people who face racism every day?

When you made a blanket statement about an entire group of people did you consider that you yourself differ in many ways from people who share resemblances to you? When you spoke out on that issue did you consider that what you saw on the news is not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? When you took action did you stop and consider that the life you were given is not the same as everyone else’s? When you felt a little better after a stranger sent kindness your way, did you ever consider that you could easily do the same for someone else too?

All I ask for is your consideration.

Did you ever stop and consider that you might be wrong and that changing your opinion IS a possibility? Did you ever consider that you too can make mistakes? Did you ever consider that you might be right, but that changing someone’s opposing opinion would be easier if you refrained from insults and had an intelligent conversation? Did you ever consider that not every battle is yours to fight? Did you consider that no matter how much you think you know you’ll never know it all?

All I ask for is your consideration.

I could be anyone. You mother, your brother, your friend, your teacher, a stranger on the street, or a follower on the internet. It does not matter who I am in your eyes; rash and inconsiderate actions will get us nowhere fast.

All I ask for is your consideration.

With the Year We’ve Had, Here’s What We Need to Remember

A few weeks ago I picked my 7th-grade tutee up from school and as he climbed into the car he said, “Want to hear a list of all the bad things that have happened to me this week?”

What followed was indeed a list of decently bad things- six of them, all in one week. That’s rough. But instead of offering my sympathy I decided to turn this into a lesson. “Okay,” I said, a challenge in my voice. “Now, for every negative thing you said, you have to give me one positive.”

You might have thought I’d told him they were canceling the sport of basketball. He was beside himself. Given how negatively he was feeling, I can imagine how difficult- or maybe even seemingly useless- it must have felt to talk about some silly little positives. But with a great deal of unwillingness on his part and some carrying the team on mine, he finally listed six positive things. I was congratulating myself on my unique brand of torture and wondering if I’d taught a lasting lesson when, as he climbed out of the car- without prompting- he listed one more positive thing. There… a small change.

If I were to pick up America at school tomorrow, what would its list be? Take your pick: guns. Abortion. Terrorists. Immigration. Refugees. Ferguson. North Carolina. South Carolina. Miami.

Is anybody else tired of getting on Facebook because you know all you’ll see is post after post of anger, frustration, and pain? A lot of awful things have happened in the last year, and I can say for my feed that these emotions come from people who care a great deal about things being better. But when we all communicate that want through negativity, I think something gets lost.

What if, instead of saying, “It shouldn’t be like this,” we said, “I believe we can be better.” What if, instead of saying, “This is ridiculous,” we said, “We are so lucky to live in a place where we can create change.” What if, instead of saying, “I hate that this happened,” we said, “I’m on my way to help?”

I have a challenge for all of us. Let’s express our strong feelings not through anger, frustration, and pain, but instead through hope, help, and change. Think about it this way: for every natural or human-made disaster, there are always countless people who want to help. How’s that for something positive?

Here’s another positive morsel: for every bad news item you see, so many good things happened in the world that you didn’t hear about. Those good things may appear to belong on a much smaller scale, but they aren’t necessarily less important. In fact, for our sanity, I think we have to make them just as meaningful as those big bad things (if you like, make Marcel as big as King Kong; make Flounder as big as Jaws). Sure, share what Miami made you feel. But then share something with hope. Share something happy. This does not mean that you’re ignoring the bad thing that happened; it means that you are doing your part to inject something positive into a world that desperately, desperately needs it.

I always wondered why nobody did something. Then I realized. I am somebody.

You may not be a politician, an expert, or a loud advocate, but there is something you can do in the face of tragedy: you can meet it with something good. You can be the source of energy and positivity that offers the rest of us the hope that we need to heal or to create change. You can be the one who, instead of condemning people of a certain group or political party, says, “I stand with you. You are not alone.”

What if we combatted mass shootings- yes, with advocacy for institutional change- but also with a tsunami of compassion, so that the next shooter doesn’t feel like there’s no other way to express what they feel? Like the people in the ’60s who offered policemen flowers, fight back with love. Fight back with togetherness. Fight back with understanding, with acceptance. Could it be that compassion is the one ingredient we’re missing as we try to change the world?

There’s so much talk of “slacktivism,” hating on people who flock to social media to express sadness at tragic events like what happened in Miami instead of actually standing up to do something about it. My belief is that we can use our expressions in a meaningful way; we can use them to help this constant stream of negativity grind to a halt. And we can do that by expressing the opposite… love.

I urge you to see the positive, or even to just say it if you don’t quite see it yet. I urge you to use good as your weapon, because good can be strong. And most importantly I urge you to love hard, no matter how frustrated you are, because only then will our words have real meaning. Only then can we create a real change.


Yesterday Alan Rickman died, and although he had a whole life and a family and a career that included all sorts of wonderful roles, at least in my generation he is remembered as Severus Snape.

Obviously, we didn’t know Alan Rickman the man. Many people my age haven’t seen his other work, except for maybe Love Actually or Die Hard (three guesses which one of those I’ve seen and which I haven’t). So, because we respect him and we feel something, we talk about Snape. Snape is someone we know, perhaps one of the characters we know most intimately in the Harry Potter series. And, as of the end of the seventh book, most of us love him.

Snape might be one of the most unique and unsolvable characters in popular literature. There are so many angles from which we can analyze him. We all talk about how Snape is a hero, Snape is so brave, Snape’s story is so tragic. And although the professor doesn’t get much credit for being good during the series, in pop culture we tend to look up to him a great deal and to feel for his heartbreaking story. But, as flattering as all of these viewpoints are, I think that, in fact, they sell Snape a little short; I would argue that Snape has the biggest damn heart in the whole series.

Here’s a boy who didn’t see love between his parents, never had his own romantic feelings reciprocated, didn’t even have any real friendships. In fact, it’s no wonder that he became so obsessed with Lily; he never had a single example of an appropriate, mutually beneficial, caring relationship in his life. And yet, he literally devotes his entire life to love. He is shunned by both the good side and the bad side. He constantly risks his life as a double agent. He is not trusted by anybody, and, even if he doesn’t show it, he surely suffers from loneliness as much or even more in adulthood as he did in childhood. And none of these awful things are in pursuit of love, which is so often how we justify them in stories. Snape stands to gain nothing- especially once we think about the fact that, even if he helps Harry, Harry is intended to die in the end anyway. Honestly, the only way Snape might ever have any satisfaction in life is if he lets go of Lily… but there’s no way he’ll do it. He would rather look at the face of James Potter’s son every day, risk his life, live without relationships or trust, than forget Lily Evans. Snape lives his life for his heart.

And that is why Snape is the bravest of all. Not because he risks his life, not because he protects Harry, not because he kills Dumbledore. Snape is brave because he is vulnerable. Snape is brave because he keeps living for his heart even though he knows that there’s no way he’ll get a happy ending. Snape is brave because he knows, without a doubt, what he lives for, even if nobody else could ever understand. Even if it means that he will never be accepted in this life. Snape would rather do right by his heart than anything else.

We tend to think of Snape as ultimately one of the most tragic characters in the Harry Potter series. But, in a way, I think he may be the luckiest. Snape is not tied to any societal conventions; he lives singularly to honor the woman whom he loves, and for him, there is nothing else. At the very end, Snape expresses no regret. He expresses one thing: his love for Lily. I think that many of us would give a lot to be that sure of what’s important to us in life, to know for whom or for what we would give it all.

The world mourns Alan Rickman, as it should, and he deserves to be thought of as a whole person rather than for just one character. But, for those of us for whom this is our only way, let’s honor Alan Rickman- a man who seems to have incredible empathy and heart- by truly understanding one of the characters he played. Let’s think about Snape not only as brave and tragic, but as huge-hearted, single-minded, and lucky for it all. Let’s think of him as the person who taught us that fulfillment comes in many forms, and that, even if we are not lucky enough to be popular or to be in a relationship, that does not mean that our life is a waste. What matters is not how the world sees us, but that we always do right by ourselves and by our hearts.


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Ever heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Long story short, back in the 70s- before psychologists got serious about using ethical practices in their research- this guy named Philip Zimbardo did a psychological experiment at Stanford. Some of the study’s participants were given the role of prisoner and the rest became the guards. Guards, of course, were supposed to keep watch over prisoners, but they ended up doing so much more. Essentially, the guards totally took advantage of the prisoners (remember, everybody in this situation is just a student participating in a psych study to earn some extra cash!). Guards practiced verbal abuse, invented rules and forced prisoners to follow them, and generally acted in accordance with the idea that, if given power, even “good” people can and will go nuts with it. People talk about this study in conversations about how there’s no hope for humanity because we all have the ability to turn totally evil.

Two summers ago I visited New York City with my brother and we spent a day at the 9/11 Memorial, which was still under construction at the time. We were able to walk around the two enormous fountains, which have victims’ names engraved upon them. The memorial was beautiful, but the most touching moment was when I heard, “Here she is.” Someone had finally found their loved one. I witnessed a reunion of sorts, and the aura was nothing but happy.

In the gift shop, footage of New Yorkers telling their 9/11 stories played on screens around the store. One story in particular has stayed with me. It was about a father with two sons, one who was a firefighter and the other who was in the NYPD. Both sons responded to the falling of the towers. At various times before going, both spoke with their father on the phone. That day, both died. “I have no regrets,” the father said, telling the story. “My last words to both of my sons were ‘I love you.’ You can’t ask for more than that.”

Today, as my own way of remembering, I read some more 9/11 stories. In each one I saw the same things: happiness. Pride. Love. A sense of duty to others. Unimaginable bravery.

I see 9/11 as the anti-Stanford Prison Experiment. This event is a case study in what happens when we are reduced to our humanity and forced to confront our strongest beliefs and values. Communities banned together; people willingly gave their lives; our country, so often divided, in many ways stood as one. In short, we saw how people could be simply good. History shows how people came together, and even in the stories I read fourteen years later, I am overwhelmed by how have come to remember the experience in the most positive way. I can certainly think of some other ways a father might respond to losing his two sons on the same day.

In no way am I saying that it’s good that 9/11 happened. In no way am I reducing its impact to the level of some ill-advised psychology experiment. I believe that, like the Stanford Prison Experiment, nothing like 9/11 should ever happen again. But it did happen, and I think the most respectful thing we can do is learn from it.

Yes, if given the opportunity, people can be extraordinarily bad. People have it within them to become villains. But- maybe more importantly- if given the opportunity, people can also be extraordinarily good. We can become heroes.

We can find plenty of examples of the bad things people do to each other every day of the year. But every year on 9/11 I choose to remember because I want to be floored by everyday people’s heroism. And why should we look at the bad so much more often the good? I propose that we all flip it. Let’s find a way to see the hero in people every day.

And let’s never forget.


On Hope

In light of recent events in Ferguson, New York City, Phoenix, and elsewhere, the nonprofit I work at organized a discussion for us yesterday morning. We were asked to answer some tough questions: How did we feel about the recent events? Sad, angry, confused, hopeful? Do people have control over their own destiny? And my personal favorite… is social justice achievable?

Well, it depends what you mean by “social justice.” It depends how you define “achievable.” To me, social justice looks like a world in which opportunities are legitimately equal for everyone, a world in which every person is treated like they matter. It means that if two people are in love and they want to get married, they can. It means that if a person does not pose any threat to a cop, that person will not be killed. It means that if somebody suffers from mental illness, he or she will not be shamed but instead will receive the proper help.

Can I realistically envision a world in which all of these problems are solved? At the moment, I don’t know. But the question doesn’t ask whether it will happen quickly. It doesn’t ask whether it will happen easily. It asks whether or not it can happen. And until I find a good reason for why it can’t, I’m going to believe that it can. Why? Because the definitions are not what’s important. What’s important to me is that I want to be the kind of person who says yes. I have to be the kind of person who believes that anything is possible. Those are the only people who ever make real changes, and who don’t give up hope.

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With regard to the cause of the murder of Michael Brown and the other related cases, I do not know whether these people were killed because the police were racist. I don’t know whether it might be overt racism or covert racism. Maybe the issue is the media, or maybe it’s police brutality; I know that I (white, female, clearly a college student at the time) have been verbally abused by the police. Maybe it’s all of the above.

But I want to end on a note of hope. All of the protests currently happening involve people who feel outraged that a white cop would kill a black person for without a legitimate reason. I may not have been around 60 or 70 years ago, but I’m guessing that back then such an incident would not have made headlines. Our country is young; less than 200 years ago black people were slaves. When my parents were young, the only jobs they saw black people in were house cleaning and driving. Today we are absolutely a far cry from equality, but in 2008 and again in 2012 America elected a black person to be our president, and now American citizens refuse to sit idly by while a white cop does not get indicted for killing a black person. That’s progress.

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

-Nelson Mandela

Let’s get there.

PS: While in some places racism is still overt, it is very often nowadays covert, or subconscious. Want to learn more? At this website you can take a survey that will give you information on whether you possess any covertly racist tendencies.