SPOILER ALERT. I will refer to plot points within the book and film in this post, so if you want to read/watch without spoilers first, be warned. Also, I do not intend in this post to claim that my interlocutors are Catholic Christians but rather to invite readers of this blog to engage from and learn from the experiences of Tara Westover and Elton John.
What really matters in life? If you boil down your ethical commitments to key foundations, what words describe them? Tara Westover and Elton John have helped me think about these questions lately. Lessons from their life stories may prove helpful for us as well.
Tara Westover is the author of Educated: A Memoir. Westover grew up in Idaho and writes about her family and their worldview, and how she slowly came to see the dangers of that worldview and to try to disconnect from it. In her home, physical violence and suspicion of the government/public education were normalized. She did not attend school until college. She writes about her relationships with her parents and siblings, the pattern of their lives on the land, and about how she eventually left Idaho and began to unlearn her past and find herself. It wasn’t easy.
Elton John’s life and career is the focus of the feature film Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher and starring Taron Egerton. This musical biopic introduces the life story of the singer-legend Elton John and shows us highs and lows in his long career as a star. It chronicles his coming out, his struggles with addiction, his talents and performances, and his search for love. It invites us to think about fame, fun, wealth, and what really matters.
Lesson 1: Become who you are
I don’t think we reflect often enough on the uniqueness of each person and how that should shape our vision of the moral life and discipleship. Each of us is created in the image and likeness of God, and yet each person is individual and unique. There is no “one size fits all” morality because we need to consider the agent and circumstances in our evaluation, and this points to a dynamic ethical method. In Rocketman, Elton John demonstrates special talents for playing piano by ear. His grandmother and his mother encourage him. In other ways he knows that he is different. This is scary. He has to navigate heterodominant culture as his emerging queer identity is not well understood. He takes risks. Some are good choices and some aren’t. Rocketman chronicles his self-discovery and self-acceptance over time; it is a wild ride but provides an opportunity for all of us to consider how we react in light of social norms. In what ways do I try to fit in, join the crowd, even when that means denying a part of myself that is trying to emerge? What does it mean for me to truly be myself, to be the person God created me to be?
Tara Westover’s memoir shows how a life of becoming may mean leaving home, questioning what you’ve been taught, unlearning what you thought you knew and seeing the world through new eyes. At key points in her life she faced choices and had to discern who she really was. Was she the kind of daughter who always did what her father told her to do? Was she the kind of sister who stood up to her brother’s abuse and named violence for what it was? Was did it mean to be a ‘good’ woman, a ‘loyal’ family member? Tara’s own voice was nurtured by university professors who believed in her, but it was her own journey of self-discovery that is powerfully described in the pages of her memoir. She found her strength, intelligence, resilience, and capacity for healing.
Lesson two: Choose life
“I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” What do these words mean for us today? The music of Rocketman brings life, joy, and energy. Throughout, the music of the film is an opportunity to tap your feet and move in your seat and marvel at Elton John’s vocal range and skill as a performer. But a deeper discernment is called for when Elton John faces his addictions and how he has to face them.
In the case of Tara Westover, choosing life means discerning that her life has value and that taking a risk to seek an education and apply for a fellowship can open up new avenues of life-giving friendship and intellectual exploration. At no point does “choosing life” mean taking the easy way out. Nor does it imply selfishness or self-centeredness. But it means a commitment to honoring what is life-giving in a true and holistic way.
In my life, how do I affirm my own dignity and seek “abundant life” for all? Do I savor the music of life? Do I seek opportunities for personal growth and intellectual exploration?
Lesson three: Always love
A major gift of these two stories is that they ask us if we know what it means to love. The way Rocketman is scripted, we see Elton John reflecting on his yearning to be loved and accepted unconditionally by his parents, and he accepts their limitations and moves on with his life, choosing to care for himself and seek a partnership grounded in mutual love. He doesn’t do this by himself, but he does have to participate in his own healing through surrender, forgiveness, truth-telling, and self-acceptance.
Tara Westover reconnects with some members of her family, while protecting herself with boundaries and prioritizing her physical safety. In no way is there a pressure to forgive or rush to forgive faults, but she seeks healthy relationships. She is not willing to submit to or blindly obey authority figures- this demonstrates self-love.
In our own lives, how do I balance love and care for myself with love and care for others? In what ways do I need to let go of hurt from past relationships so that I can be free to be myself today? Does self-care in my life today require me to set up boundaries between myself and toxic family members?
Become who you are. Choose life. Always love.
These can’t easily be accomplished and checked off our to-do list for life. But they strike me as important lessons that emerge from the stories of Elton John and Tara Westover.