I had a difficult time choosing a column topic. It’s a time in our political landscape where there’s simultaneously too much and not enough to write about. Maybe I’ll gear up for my promised Mitch McConnell takedown soon, but I want to save that for a day when I have the time to do my research and legwork properly. I discussed potentially doing something on being a straight, single dad running a theater company in the Midwest, or maybe on the potential perspective of how to be a liberal artist in my area. It was at that moment, however, that I remembered that I run a very special 84-year-old company — one that’s incredibly well-respected and regarded in my community. I lead a pretty entitled life, and I have the respect of my community and my peers. Theater isn’t weird or effete in Sheboygan, WI; we have people of every political stripe and every background here, and in my company. When I tell people what I do, they’re impressed. They don’t judge me for a preconceived notion of what “theater people” are like. Not a lot to complain about on my end.
But then something strange happened: I took my seven-year-old son to see The Greatest Showman, the highly entertaining (though dreadfully historically inaccurate) musical take on the life of P.T. Barnum and his “oddities.” (Yes, I liked it, but that’s a conversation for parties and Facebook.) My son and I were talking about the movie as we left to go to dinner when he said to me, “Dad, what makes me special? What makes me really different from everyone else?” What’s a parent to say? So I thought a moment. I began with “Well, you’re extremely smart for your age. You’re pretty great-looking. You’re kind and funny and talented and interesting.” He replied: “But what makes me different from everyone else?” I realized he was reflecting his view of the “oddities” in the film and I had to give it some more thought. After a bit of pondering, I said something to the effect of: “Well, everyone is different. Everyone is special. You’re the product of two pretty interesting and intelligent people, which gives you a particularly unique view on life. You don’t have to have something physically different about you or have strange abilities or super powers to be special. You just are because you are you,” to paraphrase Dr. Seuss’ “Happy Birthday to You.”
I’ve been giving it more thought since that initial conversation. (We didn’t return to the topic later that evening because my son had an unfortunate encounter with a taco that he didn’t like, followed by tears at dinner with me and my date — if you have kids, you know what I mean.) I wasn’t particularly popular or unpopular in high school, which was when I started doing theater. I had a relatively wide spectrum of friends and acquaintances, mostly divided betwixt skate-rat juvenile delinquents (I was one, too) and choir-band-theater geeks (I was one, too). I had enough street cred — back on the mean streets of Monongahela, PA — not to be too scarred by a lot of the ridicule and cruelty that a lot of the other kids in the arts had to endure. But I certainly have had hundreds of friends, collaborators, and especially students over the years who lived through a hellish adolescence, to say nothing of enduring the judgment and small-mindedness of other people well into adulthood. People of color, people with insecurities or different abilities, the LGBTQ and trans communities — really, anyone who’d rather see a musical or listen to Mozart or paint or write or read are usually ostracized in some way at some point in their lives. Most of this mockery stems from the insecurity of the aggressor. Some of it stems from hatred and bigotry. Some of it stems from ignorance or parents who didn’t teach their children how to be kind.
I wrote a little bit about kindness and its decline in a recent column. I’ve told my son that I care less about his intelligence or success or talent than I care about his kindness and his empathy; that he thinks of others once in a while before he thinks of himself. And that’s what makes him special. He is one of the most empathetic people I’ve ever met, and he always has been. It’s the aspect about him that makes me the most proud (I’m obviously biased). And he’s a pretty lucky and entitled kid. He’s got a warm home and plenty to eat. He has more than enough toys and books and games. He has two parents who love him more than anything, despite their differences. He can do whatever he wants with his life: those who know me know that I often joke that he’ll be a hedge fund manager, because Dad’s going to teach him that you can buy things with money, but I mostly jest…mostly. I often think back to my friends and peers who suffered through such difficulties and realize how very lucky my son is and how very lucky I was.
To quote that plucky young fellow Ben Platt, “The things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.” Not a new idea but, in this era of polarization and ignorance, it’s important to start the New Year not just acknowledging the little quirks that make us special, but embracing them and celebrating them. That weird, quiet kid? He might be the next Bill Gates. That young woman who never talks in class? She might be spinning entire universes in her mind that she puts down on paper every night. We’re all special in our own way, whether that’s visually or aurally apparent, or if it’s due to the weird and alien and exciting worlds that never leave our imaginations. Polarization, especially politically and culturally, can be scary; but it’s time to celebrate our “oddity.” Talk to someone who doesn’t agree with you. Talk to someone who outwardly freaks you out. Talk to someone about whom you’ve already made up your mind. Find their “oddity.” Find what makes them special and accept it, embrace it and celebrate it. You may even find you have more in common than you think. Instead of closing doors based on our preconceptions, let’s blow them wide open like Pandora’s Box. When we acknowledge that everyone is special in their unique way, then no one is “different.”