The Problem with PT Barnum's Promise |

Don’t you wanna get away from the same old part you gotta play
‘Cause I got what you need, so come with me and take the ride

A couple weeks ago I rented The Greatest Showman for my girls to watch. Since that evening they’ve asked every single day to listen to the soundtrack. My 10-year-old has memorized all the words from all the songs (except, “Never Enough,” because that character and story line really bothered her), and our nightly YouTube dance party has become an opportunity for my four-year-old to practice her musical-style dance moves. It’s highly entertaining, especially when she barks, “Eyes on the stage!” anytime I have the nerve to look away from her kicking and swinging and snapping and singing.

It’s been really fun to share this with the girls. But rewatching The Greatest Showman (and listening to the music on repeat) also has reminded me of how many things bugged me about this movie.

Yep, it’s true. The movie that everyone ADORED and RAVED about kind of bothered me. 

Before you start drafting your letters of complaint and arguing your case for my bad taste, hold the phone for a minute. Let me address the concerns you certainly have after reading that.

  • Yes, I really did enjoy this movie, both times I watched it. A lot!
  • Yes, it has some great messages about being yourself and kindness and creativity and dreaming big dreams and finally figuring out what’s most important.
  • Yes, I love the soundtrack, too. I’m listening to it right now, and I cry every time someone else posts that video of Keala Settle singing her song. I’m not a monster.
  • And no, this isn’t about the many unsavory facts about the actual P.T. Barnum and his life. I viewed this movie as much a fictional account as a fairy tale. I didn’t watch it for a history lesson. (I mean, it’s not Hamilton.)

Oh, and also – the song that those lyrics above are from? It’s my favorite musical scene in the whole movie. So I guess if you want to yell at me, make it about how big a hypocrite I am!

All right, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

The Greatest Showman is about a man who came from nothing and rose to great heights (at least for a while) by creating what he named “show business.” It’s about his wife who believes in him, even when he neglects her to chase his dreams. It’s about a group of marginalized people given the chance to embrace what makes them unique (or at least make some money off it). It’s about a young couple of different races falling in love and choosing to ignore their family’s and society’s objections to their relationship.

And it’s about a guy who lures people into his schemes by convincing them they’re dissatisfied with their lives. Despite his promises that taking a chance will absolutely be totally worth it for each one of them, it doesn’t actually work out for everyone.

When Barnum first sees Phillip Carlyle, Zac Efron’s character in The Greatest Showman, he basically says, “Well, that guy is rich and handsome. Surely he’s unhappy!” What follows is one man wooing the other with pointed observations about his bland, “normal” life and promises of a much more fulfilling, exciting one. In essence Barnum promises that exciting = good, bland = bad. Of course he does! This is the man credited with inventing show business, with capitalizing on the sensational. But it’s one thing to entice audiences for an evening’s entertainment; it’s another to seduce individuals into abandoning their “boring” lives for a chance at what he defines as amazing.

I can cut you free
Out of the drudgery and walls you keep in
So trade that typical for something colorful
And if it’s crazy, live a little crazy
You can play it sensible, a king of conventional
Or you can risk it all and see

Am I saying we shouldn’t take chances? That AMAZING isn’t worth pursuing, that ADVENTURE isn’t within our grasp? Nope. Not at all. What made me uncomfortable about P.T. Barnum’s approach to recruiting is that what he believed to be humdrum and tedious was actually what some of those people (including his wife) dreamed of, longed for, felt inspired and fulfilled by. He dismissed their actual dreams, even though they told him straight out what mattered most and what they cared about.

Surely much of Barnum’s success is due to his refusal to take “no” for an answer. But that tendency also meant that he completely bulldozed people, assigning them priorities and desires and mocking anything they said contrary to his own priorities and desires.

Wishing for the happiness of sweet moments spent with family? NOT GOOD ENOUGH, he said.
Longing for more time together, laughing and living a simple life? PLEASE, he sneered.
Content to produce plays and hang with your long-time friends? NOT POSSIBLE, he declared.
Wishing you could just fly under the radar and not be attacked by small-minded thugs? YOU NEED MORE, MORE, MORE! he cajoled.

Look, I get it. The movie would lead us to believe that everyone was a little banged up but somehow still better off after following the promises of P.T. Barnum. Maybe they were. But I’m not sold.

I’m not sold on P.T. Barnum’s siren call to the supposedly discontent, no matter how catchy the song lyrics or how lovely the choreography and costumes. But this fictional version of P.T. Barnum isn’t the only one guilty of peddling promises to improve our lives with more! bigger! flashier! sexier! exciting opportunities!

We get it from social media. And from my beloved Hallmark movies. We get it from friends and family and strangers at the grocery store. And from all the people out there insisting the small, quiet, simple cannot possibly be fulfilling or valuable. Some days it feels like we get it from every corner, these people who assume they know what we must want because it’s what they want, people who demand that we hustle and strive and move and change. Do more! Try harder! Chase adventure! Live fully!

Is change sometimes necessary? Yes. Could our lives be enriched with a little excitement? Maybe. Should we consider taking a leap or a new opportunity? Absolutely, if we want to. But . . . who’s to say what my full life looks like? Who’s to define adventure for me? Who gets to decide what is enough, what is fulfilling, what is obedient and good and valuable?

Me. I get to decide all that. And so do you, for your life.

Nobody else can discern God’s will for your life, and nobody else can tell you what will fulfill you. You get to decide that, and if your definition of adventure looks different than someone else’s, that is just fine. Adventure doesn’t have to be a three-ring circus. A full life doesn’t demand walking on a tightrope, setting fires, and risking it all. And we don’t have to listen to those who want to lure us away from the life we are living and loving.

Do you love your life, even if it looks weird or small or messy to other people? Are you satisfied with simple and maybe even small? Are you on the path God has made clear? Then ignore the P.T. Barnums of this world! Disregard those promises of more! bigger! better! Don’t be pulled onto the other side, as the catchy song beckons. Your side, your life? It belongs to you. It was created for you by an all-knowing and always-loving God. And, for you, it will absolutely be the greatest show on earth.

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