But what is more tragic than funny is the outrage and absolute indignation that these same performers have when the judges only state the obvious: “That was simply dreadful” as Simon Cowell often puts it. Contestants burst out of the room in tears and run into the arms of friends and family. Some shout vulgarities and make obscene gestures at the judges. One even dowsed poor Simon with water—though that was pretty funny, too. Is this a put on? Did they really think they were good singers?
I have a theory. Could it be that we are witnessing some of the ripple effects of forty years worth of the self-esteem movement? My theory is actually based on personal experience. I’m one of legions who came through the public school system with teachers that dutifully immersed us in messages of self-worth. Even my aging fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Jones, who in every other way ran her classroom as a strict disciplinarian, felt obliged to comfort my anxieties over an upcoming basketball game by telling me what an awesome basketball player I was. Oddly, she had never seen me play and I was, in fact, a terrible basketball player. There was plenty of evidence that dear old Mrs. Jones didn’t know what she was talking about, but if my coach and a handful of other influential people in my world kept up the mantra, I just might have fallen for it.
The Bible actually has a very simple way of explaining what is at the heart of the self-esteem movement and its other not-so-funny effects. Proverbs 26:28 states, “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” No matter how sophisticated our theory, telling someone something that isn’t true just so they will feel better is flattery. This proverb makes plain that flattery is just a nice word for lying. No matter how noble our motivation, and despite its comic value, giving someone a false picture of themselves doesn’t help them, but only sets them up for ruin. Without bothering to speculate on our motivation, the Bible simply calls this “hatred” because of its effect. Love means speaking in a way that helps the other person to grow, that gives them the best shot at success, not ruin, shame, and embarrassment. As a counselor as well as a husband, father, friend, and neighbor I need to remember that sometimes speaking the truth in love isn’t easy and isn’t always welcomed by the hearer. But it is love.
I think that maybe some of the contestants on American Idol would have been better served if a few trusted people in their lives had taken just a few minutes to kindly tell them, “You know, singing may not be the best use of your talents. Let me tell you what you are really good at . . .” And my fourth grade teacher—she probably should have stayed in character and told me to worry about something more important—like my math grade.