Heal The World

In an ABC’s 20/20 exclusive interview with Barbara Walters in September, 1997, Michael Jackson discussed with Walters the paparazzi Hollywood epidemic shortly after the tragic death of Princess Diana. In this interview, when asked his feelings on the nicknames the press had bestowed upon him in the tabloid magazines, the late King of Pop said, “I have a heart and I have feelings. I feel that when you do that to me. It’s not nice. Don’t do it. I’m not a “wacko.” I don’t want the paparazzi, really. But if they come around, be kind. Write the right kind of thing to write.” Of course, Barbara Walters, hard-hitting, razor tough journalist that she is, questioned Jackson’s perception saying, “Is it the journalist’s role to be kind?” This question has been haunting me since Jackson’s untimely death on June 25th.
It is perhaps ironic that since Jackson’s death, I have been spending most of my time surrounded by four to six year olds, as I’m teaching theatre camps to students at Neptune Theatre School in Halifax. My super-indelible cohort in the Neptune madness, the incredible Jessica Barry, and I try to infuse our students with strong values and we do not take lightly the responsibility that comes with the power of being teachers, role models (and sometimes idols and heroes) to some of the shortest and most impressionable members of Canadian society. We teach the children the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. We stress the importance of caring and of being kind. As individuals these basic principles, which are entirely secular, form the foundation of our children’s education, and yet, as a society we seem so quick to toss them out the window. Kindness. Caring. Genuine, unselfish sympathy, understanding and compassion. In our world of reality shows like Big Brother, websites like TMZ, and Perez Hilton and of course the countless tabloids and magazines, our society is continually pitting people against one another and themselves, creating scapegoats to divert the public attention from massive global epidemics like famine, poverty, natural disasters, and war and building up idols and superstars only to wait in anticipation for the right moment to tear them back down. Michael Jackson’s words may seem simple, they may even seem infantile or inane, but in fact, they are quite astute, and quite wise. Why shouldn’t an adult, a professional grownup, have to abide by the same rules as a four year old in a preschool classroom? Be kind. Be considerate. Care.
Of course, one must ask difficult questions at times, and Michael Jackson’s intricate life is fraught with examples of the press digging and searching for the truth, which at times appeared like a dark, twisty, mysterious, elusive thing. Yet, are we not taught as young children the appropriate way to ask questions? The appropriate way to approach problem solving? Are we not taught that resorting to lying, name-calling and overt, hurtful, unfounded judgements are detrimental to the well being of other human beings? Do we not learn in seventh grade that gossip alone can leave scars that take years of soul searching to heal? Did we not learn throughout those painfully awful years between age twelve and seventeen that viciousness and maliciousness are a sheer waste of our time and energy and that it always comes back to bite us in the end? If this is the lesson we wish to teach the teenagers of the world, how do we justify condoning the very same behaviour by adults who make their living spreading lies about celebrities and viciously and maliciously creating havoc in order to sell and advertise products that make us lazier, fatter, and less compassionate people?
Michael Jackson issued a challenge to the press in 1997 which went entirely ignored, “write the right thing.” Recently a Facebook friend of mine who was on a very popular, successful American sitcom when he was a child from the mid/late eighties until the early nineties had a status that jumped out at me. It said, “Got so scared yesterday when someone said, “Hey, you’re on TMZ.” As a society we seem to forget that acting is a profession. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a strange one, but it is still a profession. Yet, the more “successful” one becomes, the more this profession morphs into a celebrity circus and human beings become targets, as my Facebook friend exemplifies. Without even looking at the website, this actor was afraid because he knew that the attention that would be lavished upon him given his celebrity status on this website would undoubtedly be negative and unkind. Perez Hilton recently got into an altercation with someone who was frustrated by the blogger’s unkindness and lack of empathy and consideration for celebrities’ feelings. Yet, we cannot blame Perez Hilton alone, for if there was no market for his product, he would disappear. Society clicks and surfs and looks to throw celebrities to the wolves and the Golden Rule asunder.
What does this have to do with theatre? What does this have to do with me? I recently read an old quote from Toronto Life where Albert Schultz, Artistic Director of Soulpepper Theatre, criticized a theatre critic in Toronto saying, “I have told him that I sometimes find his approach bitchy, mean-spirited and personal, and I know I’m not alone in this assessment.” Therefore, it is not only in Hollywood where our society seems to relish in tearing others and their accomplishments apart. As artists we are encouraged to express our innermost selves, we are continually struggling to be brave, and to be open to inspiration, to our most creative impulses, to push the boundaries and to be personal. As artists we are encouraged to share. As children we are told to share our talents as “gifts”, and as adults we try to nurture and foster the emerging creativity, zeal, passion, love and sense of fun and play in the children we care about. How then we can turn around and attempt to tear artists apart for sharing their gifts– for giving us some of the most candid expressions of the human spirit? Can’t we only speak about how this gift impacted us on a personal, individual level? Can’t we only speculate from our limited experience with this art how successful we feel the artist was in conveying what we assume may have been her or his intention? There will be those who will thrive on the adversity and will muster every ounce of ambition to prove “those bastards wrong” and some will. There will be those who don’t take anything personally, and continue along their artistic path relentless in their own pursuits. Yet, how many dreams do mean-spirited, bitchy, personal “critiques” squash? How many artists with the potential to be great become disheartened and choose a safer path? Is this a necessary weeding out of the weak? A strength-testing challenge? If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen?
I disagree wholeheartedly with the argument that to be kind somehow devalues criticism, and that everything becomes wishy-washy and painted with the same mediocre brush. When we teach children, we guide them and encourage them and treat them with respect and kindness. And yet, their natural strengths still shine through brightly, and I believe, even brighter than they would if the children were treated with harsh judgement and criticism for the things that they struggled with or were still learning and figuring out. We will create an atmosphere conducive to learning and to excelling if we are encouraging, kind, compassionate and empathetic. If it works in kindergarten, it will work everywhere.
Michael Jackson tried to elevate his life to a higher purpose, above the petty turmoil of Hollywood. He donated passionately to charities and he was devoted to shining the limelight on the plight of the people in Africa. For all his scandals and the misconceptions about his life, and the speculations about his tragic death, Michael Jackson wanted to create a better world- one that resembled the UNICEF posters in Elementary Schools with children of all colors, creeds, religions, beliefs and languages of choice, all with happy smiling faces, holding hands all around the globe. Again, this may seem infantile, it may seem precious, or impossible, but as lofty as it may be, shouldn’t the happiness and peacefulness of everyone be a priority for the citizens of Earth, the only planet that can sustain life in the Milky Way and maybe even beyond?
For children, adults tend to break things down into manageable chunks, and I’ve found this advice is pertinent for adults prone to feeling overwhelmed as well. I may not be able to save the world in one fell swoop, but I am entirely in charge of this blog, and as the great playwright Brad Fraser reminds me, with power comes responsibility, and that is something that I hold solemnly in my heart. This blog seeks to help heal the world. This blog seeks to create a better Earth in whatever small way it can. This blog seeks to be a place of care, of compassion, empathy and kindness. This blog seeks to say YES. YES, Barbara Walters, the press can be kind and still maintain its journalistic integrity. “There are ways to get there if you care enough for the living. Make a little space, make a better place. Heal the world.”

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