I resisted the show This is Us because so many people told me I should watch it. Should is like an alarm—it’s so easy to should all over your life—and I’m trying not to do that anymore.
My writing partner is very persistent, and one night she wouldn’t take “Maybe later,” as a response. She got me to the couch and turned on the television. “It’s just so real,” she kept saying. “So true. So good.”
I watched the entire season, one night after the next. I had to dole out the shows instead of binge watching them on demand because for as much as they gave me, they also took something. My attention.
The poet Mary Oliver said attention is the beginning of devotion, and the attention I gave This is Us was complete. I cried during every show. I yelled at Rebecca more than once. As an adoptee, I barely breathed each time Randall came onto the screen. It was happening. People were talking about adoption. They were talking about the effects of adoption. I had never seen that on T.V. before. It felt holy. Attention is the beginning of devotion.
We spend our lives trying to cover up or deny what we see as our flaws or weaknesses. Issues surrounding weight, race, origin, talent, ambition, addiction, success, belonging. We may go on Facebook and present pictures of our successes, our smiling families, our new cars. We may go to work and we hide that we cried in the car before we stepped through the doors. We may look at our mother’s face and wonder what our birth mother looked like. We may step on the scale and curse what we see as our lack of self-control.
But when what we hide is put on television, it is a kind of absolution. The attention tells us, You are not alone in your struggles. Your excess weight does not make you not lovable. It just makes you big. The lack of honesty in your relationships does not mean you are a terrible person, it just means you have some lessons to learn. What we see it there is hope for us all. The very things we think may be our greatest flaws actually turn out to be the things that make us most human, most, ultimately, lovable.
Watching the scene of child Randall at the pool with his pocket notebook, making hashmarks for each new black person he sees, revealed his sense of isolation and brought me, of course, to tears. I loved him more for the pain he endured as a black child in a white family, a white community. The very thing he thought set him apart from everyone—his feeling of isolation—was the very thing that broke my heart and brought him close to me.
Does this make sense to you? What I am saying is what I love about This is Us is that it tells us everything will be okay. That there is beauty in the suffering. And we see there is beauty because the camera has us see it. And attention is the beginning of devotion.
The key is connection. These characters go through hard times, but at the end of the day it is their connection with each other that brings the sense of okay, life is hard but at least we have each other. There was the episode when Jack and Rebecca fought, and Jack slept outside their bedroom door, and when Rebecca saw his devotion, when Rebecca came back to love, the scene ended with the entire family on a hugging pig pile on the floor. And, of course, I cried. Life is so messy, but when it’s on T.V. we see the beauty in the mess.
2016 was hard for a lot of people. I have high hopes for 2017. Attention is the beginning of devotion.
It’s a good time to take stock and to ask yourself what is important to you. It’s a good time to pretend your life is a T.V. show and to be devoted to that which you love. It’s a good time to really look. To really see.
Happy New Year.
This is us.