I remember when I first heard about Ted Williams, the homeless man with the golden voice. Everyone was abuzz about it. I wasn't. It was strange, I know, but I actually found myself feeling rather disconcerted about the whole affair from the start.
I felt it immediately during the opening intro to the Today Show - Meredith Viera emphasizing in her briefly-worded introduction that this gentleman had become "an overnight YouTube sensation." I found it odd because, before we knew what it was that had made this guy so famous, we knew he was famous. And something about that just seemed kind of troubling to me.
Then came the news: he was a homeless man who had an amazing voice. And it made me wonder: what exactly was it about this that captured our fascination? Was it because this man has a gift that had gone unused or wasted all these years? Or was it that, in a society which places such a heavy emphasis on appearances, it absolutely blew our minds that a voice like that would come out of the mouth of a man who looked like that? Why should this surprise and amaze us so much? I remember having the same sensation when I saw Susan Boyle do her thing on a British television stage. "The voice of an angel!" someone shockingly exclaimed. But do our angels have to look a certain way, or can they in fact be "frumpy?" Is it the talent that's the story, or what the talent looks like?
But the thing about Ted's story that had me most unnerved was when everyone talked about all the job interviews he was getting, all the late night talk shows he would circuit through, and what a great story this was. Except Ted's story didn't begin the day we heard about him. It had a long and painful history. There was a reason, of course, that Ted was out on the streets to begin with. We didn't hear about it at first, or maybe we just weren't listening. But eventually we all learned of the drug and alcohol addiction and the family who had been ostracized after being put through hell and back. All of which came to a head mere days after his newfound celebrity when Ted checked in an L.A. rehab center after an emotional and physical confrontation with his family, including his grown daughter, who he had walked out on when she was a child.
Interesting, isn't it, that during the first few days of the YouTube craziness those details were relatively unimportant to the masses, who were still enthralled with the story of a homeless man with the golden voice who was getting a second chance at life and putting his gift to use again. We were less inclined to see the bigger picture of Ted Williams because the smaller one was far more attractive and enticing.
And all of this happened in the span of seven or eight days.
The truth of the matter is that Ted's story tells us far more about ourselves than it does Ted. We as a society drink deep from the well of cultural fame. We pounce on the next big thing; we watch YouTube clips and post them on Twitter and Facebook, only to drop it like a lead balloon when something else captures our collective fancy. We have this luxury because we're consumers of an immediate product from a distance and don't have to bother with the details of another person's life.
And not only that, but we like our stories nice and neat. We dig tales of human redemption without all the messiness that often comes with it. The problem, of course, is that humanity is messy. Redemption is rarely a painless endeavor. So instead of the movie where the guy gets the girl and all is right with the world as the credits roll, we have to recognize and honor the fact that people's lives extend far beyond the fifteen minutes of fame we both grant them and then eagerly consume.
By nature we are social beings. We are designed to be in communion with others. And it's not just people close to us that we seek relationship, but in today's world it's those behind computer screennames, images on a television or movie screen, and someone in a YouTube clip. And one of the things that so often slips our minds is the fact that these individuals are much deeper than we could ever recognize; that we are only granted the opportunity to skim a a few pages of the massive novel that is their life. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, the scriptures tell us. We are not simple. There's always more to a person than we can ever know.
I wish all the best for Ted and hope his most recent stint in rehab sticks. Just as much, though, I hope we as a society can grow to realize that there are more important things than fame, that even angels can have wild hair and stand on a street corner holding a cardboard sign, and that the mystery of being human is something we should strive to acknowledge and honor - not just in ourselves, but in everyone else. If we can do that, even a little bit, then Ted's story will have real meaning other than giving us something to post to our Facebook page.