Medicine For People!

May 2018

Florence Foster Jenkins

Real Qualities or Counterfeit Perfection?

After watching the movie "Florence Foster Jenkins"...

Did you ever see a movie you enjoyed greatly, then watched it again and found it empty? Then you found another movie that you enjoyed more each time you saw it?

The same might be the case for people you know. One is the life of the party, yet one-on-one is self-centered and uninteresting. Another person, placed in a social setting, stands near the wall. They seem boring until you find yourself alone with them having a fascinating conversation.

These thoughts popped into my head after watching the movie "Florence Foster Jenkins." If you haven't seen this movie, Meryl Streep brings to vibrant life the real woman of that name who was famous for singing badly. (If you have time, take some now to read the Wikipedia entry about her. Born into a wealthy family, Jenkins' piano-playing ability won her an audience in the Rutherford B. Hayes White House as a child. Sadly, an injury to her left hand and a case of syphilis passed to her from her husband ended her piano career; instead, she took up life as a New York City socialite.

She loved performance and singing. She sang to larger and larger audiences. Unfortunately, she was not able to hear how she sounded, possibly because of nerve damage from the syphilis or the usual treatments for syphilis at the time, which included mercury and arsenic. Those who loved her tried to protect her from the scorn of music critics; but inevitably (when Jenkins was 76) they failed and a critic published a scathing review. A few weeks later she died.

The critics were correct. Jenkins sang flat, could not keep to a rhythm, and broke every singing rule in the book. Why then did musical greats such as Lily Pons, Andre Kostelanetz, Cole Porter, and Enrico Caruso attend her concerts and regard her with affection?

I think it was her spirit. She loved music. She was convinced that she sang well. She approached her singing with a joy that was infectious and unselfconscious. Her singing might be atrocious but she was a delight to experience.

Before the days of radio and television, families and friends entertained each other in the evenings. After supper Aunt Anna might stand and give her recitation (heard many times before) of Oliver Wendell Holmes' "The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay." Cousin Maurice might sing "Beautiful Dreamer." Or they would sit on the front porch and banter creatively with each other and the neighbors.

Nothing was as practiced and perfect as we have come to expect nowadays. Yet people loved each other for their imperfections as well as their kindly qualities.

Thomas Edison built a thousand lightbulbs that did not give light before he built one that did. Caruso sang many songs imperfectly before he reached his peak of performance. Jenkins never sang well, but she kept right on anyway. What magnificence! No doubt Kostelanetz and the rest felt a connection with her courageous spirit. No doubt they knew that the high degree of development that they brought to musical performance was no substitute for the more ordinary but necessary heart and soul that Jenkins, like Aunt Anna and Cousin Maurice, brought to life for their families and neighbors.

So many of us doubt our creative abilities. We know our limitations. So we arise each morning with the conviction that today we will get it right. Today, we say to ourselves, we will sing better than before, we will parent more carefully, we will do better at work. Sometimes we do. Sometimes, we don't.

What do you, as an individual, have to give to this world? Are you able to give it imperfectly, knowing that your friends and family love you as you as are? In fact, they may love you even more because you are not perfect, just as they are not perfect. Perfect people are easy to admire from afar, but can be hard to get close to. It's the imperfect person who lives their life joyously whom we want as a friend.

Give thanks for your imperfections. Yes, do your best to improve your singing, your cooking, your attention to our common welfare, humbly recognizing that you—like all of us—will always have room for improvement.

Mental health depends upon us accepting ourselves as we are, in our imperfection. Mental health depends upon courage, to keep working at our talents knowing we will never achieve all our goals. Mental health depends upon being comfortable with knowing that no matter how good we become, time will have her way with us and our powers will diminish again.

Perfection is not the goal. The important thing is to try. When we lie on our deathbed and have our last thoughts, let us rejoice that we did not turn away from the opportunities life gave. As Florence Foster Jenkins said, "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing."

Thanks to Jody Bower for removing most of the imperfections in this newsletter.

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Medicine for People! is published by Douwe Rienstra, MD at Port Townsend, Washington.