I noticed a report on television today announcing that Susan Boyle had made it into the semi-finals of the show “Britain’s Got Talent.”  What is it about that video of her surprising and wowing the British audience when she first appeared live on the  program that is so captivating?  Apparently there have been millions upon millions of viewings of it.

Susan Boyle’s dramatic capturing of the hearts of the audience and millions who have seen the video is so powerful because she seemed at first to be a silly nobody who thought she was a somebody.  She turned out to be a somebody of great talent.  The lessons to be learned from what happened there are many.

For me, her unexpected success has touched a nerve, just as it has apparently done for many others.  There is something about the idea of exceeding expectations and being recognized for doing so that resonates with some part of my inner longings.

Having grown up with the usual childhood lack of self-confidence, there has always been a search for affirmation and recognition.  In high school when Pam and I sang for the first time in a rehearsal the original duet written for the A Capella Choir’s musical “Zingaro” (the song was titled “Right Over There”), all the kids standing around stopped what they were doing, listened and when we were done applauded loudly.  As shallow as it sounds, I realized then just how much I thrive on affirmation.

My absolute favorite movie of all time is “The Man from Snowy River.”  It is the story of a young mountain man in Australia exceeding all expectations as he becomes a man — and, of course, wins the favor of the young lady for whom he has fallen.  When Jim returns to the shock of all, having single-handedly gathered all the stray cattle left behind by the seasoned drovers, I feel the same thrill every time I see it.  I suppose I have seen the movie twenty-five times over the years.  I am due again.  It has been many years since I watched it.

As I tracked back from those two indications of my psychological make-up, I remembered my favorite book as a child, “The Little Engine that Could.”  Wikipedia includes on their web site this early version of the story:  A little railroad engine was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill “I can’t; that is too much a pull for me,” said the great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. In desperation, the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the grade and down on the other side. “I think I can,” puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As it went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, “I–think–I–can, I–think–I–can.” It reached the top by drawing on bravery and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself by saying, “I thought I could, I thought I could.”

The thrill of exceeding expectations is wonderfully satisfying.

The Wikipedia site also includes this reference: Shel Silverstein wrote a poem called “The Little Blue Engine” that referenced this story, except in the end the engine almost reached the top of the hill but then very quickly slid back down and crashed on the rocks below, and the poem ended with the memorable line “If the track is tough and the hill is rough, THINKING you can just ain’t enough!”

Caregivers live in a world of the impossible.  We are frustratingly imperfect.  We try but we cannot fix our Loved Ones.  Every day we are reminded that we are inadequate to the task.  Even when we do feel as if we have accomplished something, there is no applause, no affirmation — just more to do.  We certainly cannot climb this hill and sail down the other side to success. For many of us there is no end in sight, just more hill.

With that said, there is more to learn from Susan Boyle, Jim, and the Little Engine that could.  I have not read or seen much of Susan Boyle’s history, but she  apparently has been singing since she was twelve years old.  She sings very well.  She sings often.  Her moment came because she sings well and has sung often.  If she couldn’t sing, or had never used the ability, the moment never would have come.  As the story goes, Jim grew up with horses and learned from his Dad and the famous Drover named Clancy.  He had the ability to do what finally brought him recognition and affirmation that he had become a man.  The Little Engine worked day by day, doing his job, growing in strength until he was able when the opportunity came to pull that long train up and over the hill.

Doing what we are called to do, doing it well, learning how to do it better is what finally allows the possibility of success, recognition, affirmation.  Seeking the moment of recognition is meaningless unless there is substance to that which is to be affirmed.  In fact, seeking the affirmation diverts attention and energy away from the very work that is worthy of such attention.

While I still love affirmation and attention, time and experience and Spiritual Formation has re-framed my inner longing.  Before I retired, when I delivered a sermon that was meaningful to me, one in which I said what I wanted to say, in as clear a way as I knew how, just preaching the sermon was fulfilling.  My longing now is to do what am doing in a way that is genuine, helpful to others, and fulfilling to me whether or not there is some sort of recognition.

Now that I am clearer on who I am and what hills I am climbing, just continuing to climb satisfies my longings.  Life has already delivered far more than I ordered.  Even in the face of obstacles beyond my ability to overcome them, I refuse to give up hope.  As foolish as it may seem I still think I can, I think I can, I think I can.  If and when I can’t, there is for me a well of Spiritual strength that sustains my hope.

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