WARNING: Contains The Greatest Showman spoilers!
The Greatest Showman is a feel-good, rags-to-riches story that empowers dreamers and celebrates diversity. The movie begins with a powerful score introducing P.T Barnum as The Greatest Showman, a charismatic leader of a successful circus. As the curtains close, we learn the tragic back story of Barnum’s childhood. He had come from humble beginnings, having experienced discrimination by the upper-class, the premature death of his father, and subsequent poverty and homelessness.
As a child, Barnum had worked for the Hallet family, and it was there that he fell in love with their only daughter Charity, whom he later marries in adulthood. Working a desk job, Barnum provides a humble life for his wife and two daughters, but every night Barnum is kept awake by his dreams of more (“A Million Dreams”). When Barnum loses his desk job, he takes on a risky loan to buy a museum where he would host his dream show. In an effort to boost ticket sales, Barnum encourages human ‘freaks’ to perform, an opportunity that propels social outcasts into the spotlight and to come alive. Not only is the show a success, ‘Barnum’s Circus’ becomes a family for the marginalised and a celebration of human diversity.
“Everyone is special, and nobody is like anyone else. That’s the point of my show.” – P.T Barnum
Barnum is the type of hero that our society champions. He’s charming, innovative and sees value in people that others overlook. Having faced rejection and loss as a child, he is a leader who offers tangible hope. He is loyal to his vision of creating a great circus, and stands by his circus family even when the people and the press ridicule them. Barnum is humble, steadfast and an unexpected saviour. In the spotlight, Barnum is great.
But as the movie progresses we realise that the Great Showman is just an ordinary man, haunted by a lifetime of rejection and failure. In his desperation to be someone great, Barnum begins to sacrifice what he loves, in order to be loved. He is willing to disassociate himself from the circus ‘freaks’ in order to further his reputation with politicians and aristocrats. The potential for global success prompts Barnum to go on tour with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, leaving his lonely wife behind to reminisce their humble beginnings, a time when she was still included in her husband’s dreams (“Tightrope”).
Blinded by the spotlight, Barnum begins to dehumanise the family he had once cherished, seeing them merely as acts for his big show. While on tour, Lind falls in love with Barnum but when he rejects her advances she cancels the tour. On her last show she surprises Barnum with a kiss, a scandalous image that becomes front-page news. His museum is also set on fire after a fight breaks out between the circus and a mob of protesters. Barnum returns home to a heartbroken wife, a museum destroyed, and the stinging realisation that success never satisfies (“Never Enough”).
The global success of The Greatest Showman goes beyond the catchy songs and impressive choreography. We love redemption stories because in every human heart is a deep cry for love, forgiveness and belonging. Despite losing everything, Barnum reconciles with his wife and the movie ends with the circus standing together to empower Barnum to rebuild his dreams (“From Now On”). In the face of deep shame, Barnum received undeserved mercy.
“The world was ashamed of us, but you put us in the spotlight. You gave us a real family.” – The Bearded Lady
Barnum’s story resonated deeply with me because I’ve lived the majority of my life in the shadow of shame. According to Research Professor Brené Brown, there is a stark difference between guilt and shame. While guilt tells us that we’ve made a mistake, shame tells us that we are a mistake and therefore unworthy of love or belonging. Shame is a powerful emotion that can cause us to feel rejected, worthless, dirty or exposed.
One of my earliest experiences of shame was my first day of school and being confronted by the fact that I didn’t speak English. While other kids were busy making new friends, I spent the first two weeks sitting alone and busying myself with solo craft projects. I was terrified of getting caught out for being different. One day during class, my teacher asked me a question, and to my horror every eye turned to look at me. As she repeated herself over and over, and as I sat there muted in confusion, my classmates began to laugh.
“Was I the only one who didn’t get the joke? Was I the joke!?”
Growing up in the 90’s as an Australian born Chinese, “Do I belong here?” was a question I wrestled with daily. Like a Showman, I performed for an audience that was never satisfied. I put on different hats to conform to contradicting standards, only to learn that pleasing one person would disappoint another. “Will I ever be good enough?” was a question that taunted my soul because shame showed me no mercy. In a world so filtered and punishing, “This is Me” was not an anthem I could confidently sing.
“When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me.”
The church can be a terrifying place for those who struggle with shame. For many years, shame made me feel worthless before God and the community. I felt shame when I didn’t feel as happy or enthusiastic as the people around me. I felt shame when people spoke about the ‘big sins’ that I struggled with. I felt shame when I knew that my Sunday persona didn’t match up to my lifestyle throughout the week. I spent many years confused and weeping at Jesus’ feet, wondering if I would ever be ‘good enough’ for him.
For years I believed that ‘freaks’ like me were not welcomed in the church, and so it surprised me when I started reading the Bible and seeing the lengths Jesus went to restore shameful people. He praises the ‘sinful woman’ for her love (Luke 7:36-50), saves the adulterous woman from being stoned (John 8:1-11), and associates himself with a Samaritan woman who failed miserably to measure up to community standards (John 4:1-26). In his ministry on earth, he gave the best of his time to serve unimportant people, and obeyed God perfectly in the midst of temptation, hunger, betrayal and immense grief.
“God knows us through and through, and yet instead of labelling us as freaks and frauds, we are welcomed home as sons and daughters.”
The more I observed Jesus, the more I realised that his life and love for people is not just for show. Jesus is not a showman who profits from his relationships. He doesn’t abandon people when they no longer serve his agenda. He loves people more than he needs love from them. God knows us through and through, and yet instead of labelling us as freaks and frauds, we are welcomed home as sons and daughters.
Being a child of God means that we no longer have to find our worth in our performance before an insatiable audience that is here today and gone tomorrow, because we now belong to the King whose reign will last into eternity. “This is Me” is no longer our great anthem, because we get to live as an ambassador for the only One who is truly great. On the days when shame threatens to drag you back into hiding, let the words of Jesus be an anchor for your soul: “…if you believe in me you will never be put to shame.” (Romans 10:11)
This first appeared on Heidi’s blog and is shared here with permission.