At my high school we kicked off various sporting events by singing the first and most famous stanza of the national anthem.
Several of my friends did the honors, but their uneventful performances I have forgotten. Naturally, my warped brain can recall only the single, most rousing rendition.
Scene: Lipscomb High’s gymnasium. You could hear the buzz of a thousand conversations from the sidewalk outside. In the lobby, more sensations: popcorn’s unmistakeable hot-oil aroma, a muggy but not unpleasant heat, the palpable, bubbling excitement of sport.
The gym itself still had wooden bleachers, and at most games, by the time some helper sounded the buzzer, the place was packed, standing room only.
The national anthem preceded tip-off. I don’t remember much about the vocalist, which is a mercy to her.
Her name might have been Lynn. Lynn cradled the mic in two hands and started in. Her voice wasn’t the best or worst. She made it through the first line, the second, the third:
“O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight…”
Then, she skipped to the line that comes third to last:
“Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”
The problem is, the momentum builds through the final two lines:
“O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
Our poor singer sensed that this crescendo had come too soon. Or maybe Lynn realized that she hadn’t yet nailed the high note she had practiced:
“And the rocket’s red GLARE….”
Gone was the eyes-closed bliss of a singer working her patriotic magic. A look first of confusion, then of realization, then of horror, passed across her face.
Right about then, the crowd woke up to what was happening.
The rest of the lyrics had vanished. POOF.
Lynn scrambled backward trying to find a vocal foothold that would jog her memory. She never recovered. After repeating her improvised loop once or twice, she sang the last two lines and, defeated, scurried off the floor.
At least people didn’t start laughing. I can say that for the fine fans of Lipscomb athletics. Some dad probably coughed absurdly loud to signal that we really needed to politely ignore what had just happened. Do the poor girl a kindness and get on with the show.
If you have ever embarrassed yourself on a stage, literal or metaphorical, in public, in front of people whose eyes you’ll have to meet on Monday, then you can’t help but share in a performer’s gut punch of humiliation.
Those blunders leave a psychic wound. The next time someone hands you a mic or waves you onto the stage, your stomach rolls over. The emotions reverberate.
I don’t have to tell you that the Internet is no more kind to botched performances than the real world — less so, I’d say.
Something about being one degree removed from physical reality gives people permission to be uncivil, unfair, unswerving in their nitpicking and error-finding.
A peculiar self-righteous zeal takes over. Give an eleven year-old boy a magnifying glass, strong sunlight, and a troop of ants, and the impulse to enact destruction kicks in.
Give a twenty-something bro free Wifi, Youtube, and a comments section, and the impulse to wreak havoc kicks in.
We could spend hours picking apart the psychology of trolling. Why do people attack a stranger who posted a video about smoking a brisket? Why do they waste time on snark, obscenity, and gibes about his mother?
The audio was garbled and the lighting poor? Who friggin’ cares!
The advice about buying an offset smoker missed the mark? So what.
Why not unsubscribe, unfollow, or otherwise distance yourself from his most egregious of hickory-smoked misdeeds?
The online culture of reprisal is bizarre in its allocation of time. To prove just how misguided someone is you must give him or her more of your time and what-for.
A more effective way of expressing dissent would be to give less attention, not more. Attention is currency. Spend yours elsewhere.
Okay. I know that simplistic solution overlooks the source of all that ire and angst. Lots of people have unacknowledged anger rooted in their lot in life and nourished by systemic wrongs and continued callousness from the powers that be.
Perhaps we become trolls because we need to aim all that pent-up anger and frustration at someone. We long for catharsis, and that ignorant noob, under the alias of BBQ Junkie XL, citizen of Fort Wayne, Indiana, provides the most convenient pressure release valve.
Where am I going with this?
I’ve got some bad news for you, and some good news too.
The bad news is that human beings aren’t going to change. We will always have trolls. The good news is that history remembers creators and forgets critics. Let me repeat: History forgets critics.
You may be afraid to write or design or draw or sing because you may not give a pitch-perfect performance. What if you embarrass yourself?
What if you flop around like a bleeding fish and the sharks show up?
It’s going to happen. You will produce bad art. Statistically speaking, this is inevitable. Some of your ugly stuff will happen in public. Critics will pan your performance. Trolls will lick their chops over the impending melee.
Everyone will relish your downfall, except that they won’t, because trolls couldn’t care less about you, your mistakes, or your art.
Does the boy with the magnifying glass cares about the dead ants?
No. Both are responding to some primal need to exert force and make a mark on the world. Trolls hunger for significance like the rest of us, but they try to satiate that appetite with the counterfeit power of tearing down.
They waste their precious time on demolition, but demolition doesn’t feed your soul like creativity. It leaves you hungrier because you have nothing to show for your time and energy.
Anger cannot nourish like love.
As an artist, you cannot avoid bad performances. You also cannot avoid trolls. Trolls show up as soon as you have the courage to create and to make your creations public.
You can, however, get back up when critics knock you down. You can get back to creating for the sheer love of it.
History remembers the people who get back up.
I sure hope Lynn has sung the national anthem again. She had the courage to walk out on the court.
Discomfort aside, the practice of courage matters more than the missed notes. So take the next troll who shows up with a sledgehammer as confirmation of your courage. You actually did something. Good for you.
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