So this week, Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House. The now infamous story involves the comment he wrote in the guest book. He wrote, “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.” For those of you who don’t know, “belieber” is a term for the teen-aged girls who are wild Justin Bieber fans. I don’t know if Bieber knows it, but “belieber” in German means something like “someone who likes something a lot” so it’s a pretty nice little pun to denote a Bieber fan. That’s fine. The word is also close to the German beliebt which means something like preferred, beloved, desired.
But of course, Justin Bieber has become synomous in our culture for shallow, over-indulged pop-culture. Nobody ever says, “My sister is really a smart, profound person. So she’s totally into Justin Bieber!” I’m not dissing him as an artist, nor am I dissing pop culture. I’m just saying that nobody associates Bieber or Bieber fans with depth, maturity, profundity or social transformation.
So Bieber visiting Anne Frank’s house is a good thing. I hope he really was inspired. I hope he learned something. One thing he needs to learn, though, is something about self-centeredness. I don’t mean the depraved kind of self-centeredness, but the clueless kind. The Anne Frank House, of course, has been characteristically gracious, putting the best construction on Bieber’s clueless self-reference. But still, his words, however well intended, said the wrong thing.
Sadly, it’s not hard at all to say the right thing at such a time. It’s really simple. What’s hard is to say the wrong thing. One single rule governs whatever we say at such times. Here is the rule: in the presence of profound courage, strength and pain, my ego, my self, “I” have one, and only one proper role, if any. That role is humility. I may be challenged, inspired, humbled or taught. I may not, even in a well-meaning way, annex the suffering and character of someone like Anne Frank to my own fame. Not even in a kind of back-handed tribute.
Here’s something like what I wish Bieber had written.
“I was moved, driven to think deeply about the suffering that many experience in this world. When I contemplate the courage and strength shown by Anne Frank, I realize how easy my own life has been. I also realize how trivial my own achievements seem in contrast to the long, dark time of suffering I have learned about here. Anne Frank has moved me to think more deeply about my responsibility in the world. I resolve to do all I can to be a redemptive, healing influence. Thank you.”
It is not the best, or deepest sentiment. It’s just one thing he could have said.
But he didn’t, and more’s the pity.