Everyone wants to know who they are.

I don’t mean that everyone has some kind of amnesia problem that makes them literally forget their identity. I mean everyone wants to have a definition; some kind of understanding of what one’s life means, what one’s life is worth, what one’s role to play is in life. If you don’t believe me that this is a universal human need (and maybe you shouldn’t; I’m not entirely sold that every person ever has had this feeling. It’s only a theory), listen to grownups at a party. They usually get around to asking questions about what a person does for a living. Often, this point is brought up during one’s introduction. What do you do? Oh, I’m a schoolteacher. How about you? Occupational therapist. Ah. Identity of the person in front of me immediately established. With a lot of people (I would venture to say most people, although of course some people feel this much more strongly than others) the what-do-you-do-introduction is like a game of rock-paper-scissors. Occupational therapist beats schoolteacher beats bank teller beats fast food worker beats unemployed person beats drug addict beats street criminal and on it goes. If this little synopsis makes you uncomfortable and irritated (hey! My MOM is a bank teller!) you are on the right track for the rest my little epiphany about Susan Boyle, here. Although I have more to say before I get to her.

With children it is (slightly) more subtle. All children have the same answer to the what do you do question. I go to school. But rest assured, they are looking at each other all the time to figure out who they are in relation to who everyone else is. Okay. He is tall and is a swimmer and is kind of quiet, so the girls like him. But he seems shy and intimidated, which means if I am a little bit mean to him, he’ll do anything I tell him to do. She has costly-looking shoes and nicely-styled hair and a lot of friends, so I’d better be really nice to her.

I know I do this. I size people up all the time. I want to know who I am as much as anybody else, and I often rely on other people to tell me. If someone smiles at me and agrees with something I say, then I know that I am quite a decent and intelligent lady, and if someone sends me a crabby e-mail about something I’ve done that in their opinion I ought not to have, then I know that I am not that great after all. This believing what other people think of me gets less and less as I get older, but in adolescence I had it so badly it was almost unbearable.

Lots of people have figured out that letting others tell you who you are is ultimately a zero-sum game. It’s no secret that it is terribly unpleasant and unreliable to take your self-worth from the opinions of fellow human beings. They so rarely actually know what they are talking about, and when they DO know what they are talking about, it’s often even worse, because what makes them so great that they know the truth about us? Didn’t we just see them picking their nose, or yelling at their child in an unbecoming tone, or putting it’s when it should have been its? This is why we so often hear adolescent children proclaim that they do not care what anyone thinks of them.

But the trouble is, even if you don’t care what people think of you, you still want to know who you are. Which leads many people to come to believe that the best person to tell you who you are is you. And that can be quite a satisfactory answer, and a great deal of poetry and novels have been written to that general end. The oeuvre of Ayn Rand comes to mind, or that William Henley poem about being the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.

Now. Being the master of your fate and the captain of your soul is well and good, and tends to impress many, many people. Until you make an error about yourself. You had always told yourself and anyone who’d listen that you were an outstanding Scrabble player, for example, and then you made the mistake of playing against a really clever seventh grader and setting her up perfectly for a triple word score and she crashed down on you with all seven letters and there was no way you could recover from that in time for second period and you lost fair and square to someone 18 years younger than you and suddenly it is plain as day that you AREN’T that hot of a Scrabble player, after all. This happened to me on Friday, actually.

The cognitive dissonance involved in this situation leaves you with two options. You can either become the most irritating, oblivious person ever and ignore all evidence to the contrary of your self-proclaimed excellence, or you can admit that your assessment of yourself must have been a bit flawed all along and perhaps in some cases (only some, mind you) you aren’t really the final word on who you are.

Which puts you right back to where you started. If you don’t really know who you are, then perhaps others do. But as I’ve said before, others tend to be unreliable on the subject, as well. And who are they to judge? The whole thing is quite frustrating if you think about it too much. Which is why most people don’t.

I’ve begun calling this phenomenon the “Better-Than-But-Not-As-Good-As Game”. As in: “I am better than YOU but not as good as YOU”. The Better-Than-But-Not-As-Good-As-Game is what we play when we try to figure out who we are using other people or ourselves as the rubric for the assessment. Eventually I shortened it to the “Better-Than Game”. And then just: the BTG.

Once you get the hang of identifying the BTG, you begin spotting it absolutely everywhere. Last Wednesday night I was watching one of the first Holocaust documentaries ever made, Night and Fog directed by Alain Resnais, and as I was watching the shocking and horrifying old footage of walking corpses and warehouses of human hair I suddenly thought. . .Better-Than-YOU-But-Not-As-Good-As-YOU. By which I mean that the Nazis’ whole agenda was pretty well defined by the BTG, though of course they took it to the extreme point where there was no one as good as them. I may as well point out that I also think the BTG is a good general definition of the sin of pride, which is, according to Dante, the root of all other sin.

So what has any of this to do with Susan Boyle, the Scottish woman whose audition on Britain’s Got Talent is now viral on YouTube, and whose name is inevitably preceded with “never-been-kissed” or “dowdy” in all the media attention surrounding her? Glad you asked.

Susan Boyle was on a competitive talent show: literally, a BTG. So one might argue that my dismay at the timbre of all the attention surrounding her is ill-conceived. And it probably is. But.

I implore the media to stop being so self-congratulatory about looking beyond Susan Boyle’s dowdy, unsexy, unsexualized, furry-eyebrowed, double-chinned, frizzy-haired, middle-aged, single-living, cat-owning exterior to praise her lovely singing voice. My God, isn’t this big of us! they all seem to be saying, we aren’t really ageist or sexist or materialist or horribly prejudiced against overweight people at all! Those scolds in the public had us all wrong all this time! All along, it was really only about talent! You see? When a painfully ordinary-looking person comes on with a great, large, angelic voice, we praise her to the rafters and have a media circus just like we do with Britney Spears!

Not that I begrudge Susan Boyle one iota of the attention she has been getting. I welled up at her audition video just like everybody else. But I must strongly disagree with the media’s implication that Susan Boyle proves that they were never playing the BTG after all, that our whole culture isn’t dripping with it, alongside the sarcasm in Simon Cowell’s miserable comments.

It’s all in the judge’s remarks after Susan Boyle finishes singing. All that snarky, backhanded meanness about how “everyone was laughing at you until you opened your mouth”. So what you’re saying is that Susan Boyle is worthless without her talent? That the only thing standing between her and mockery and scorn is a lovely singing voice? I know she went on a talent competition, which does up the ante on the expectations, I suppose, but I do not think we should be any too excited about a society that plays the BTG with this level of cruelty. Whoever gave Simon Cowell the right to tell Susan Boyle who she is before she opens her mouth? Perhaps he has the qualifications to tell her the level of her talent after she opens her mouth, but anything beyond that I think we can safely say is out of his pay scale.

What about all the Susan Boyles who can’t sing a note? Does Simon Cowell laugh at them, sitting patiently at the bus stop, as he whizzes by in his undoubtedly shiny and expensive car? Or does he just ignore them, not even seeing them, really, just part of the wallpaper of his incredibly important life? Lest I get too haughty and self-righteous at Simon Cowell, I should point out that I probably ignore the Susan Boyles nearly as much, although I at least have the decency to ignore them from a 1995 Toyota Corolla that mostly consists of rust. My point is that I do not think we deserve to be self-congratulatory about praising Susan Boyle until we are able to be kind and humane to all the dumpy women who live alone with their cat, are a little bit odd, and are prosaically lower-than-average in every possible respect until the day they die. And I don’t mean that we should be this way to show how nice and unprejudiced we are by looks and age and those things. I mean we should be this way out of an inherent sense that we truly are no better than anyone else, though of course that also means that nobody else is any better than us.

And in my opinion, this understanding cannot come from anywhere except God. Simon Cowell cannot tell Susan Boyle who she is, but neither can Susan Boyle tell herself who she is. She, like all of us, needs an outside source; something perfectly reliable and perfectly good, to tell her this information. And I think that source is God, who finds us all equally sub-standard, no matter what we do, and who loves us all equally perfectly, despite that fact.

I spend the bulk of my time among secular people. The most popular attitude that they express to me about my faith is the same attitude that I saw recently in the New York Times (see Judith Warner’s Easter blog): they process my love for God as nice, warm-fuzzy feelings that spirituality brings, without the uncomfortable inconvenience of a God who laughs at the attempts of others to define me, and laughs still harder at my attempts to define myself. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, Christianity in its fullest understanding is a source of unspeakable comfort. But to get to that understanding involves accepting a few unavoidably difficult premises, and Susan Boyle is a nice crucible for understanding all of them.

Until we stop playing the BTG game, all we do when we praise Susan Boyle is substitute one Better-Than trait (talent) for another (sexiness). The only way to stop playing the BTG is to put God into the judge’s seat, instead of Simon Cowell. If you were feeling uncomfortable listening to the judges’ backhanded compliments, it’s because the BTG leads to terrible places, and we all know this, and (worst of all) we are all guilty of it.

Susan Boyle is valuable because she is a human being. That’s it. When your mother told you that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, she was only part right. If you’re comparing the book in that aphorism to people, it ought to be that you shouldn’t judge a book, full stop. Would everyone please just enjoy her singing and stop smirking?