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The Courage to Be Fifteen
Thomas C. Willadsen

I know the demographics are all wrong. Last week I turned forty-nine, and my son bought me a Taylor Swift CD. I returned it… because I already had it!

I first discovered Taylor Swift one afternoon while I was reading the New Yorker at the public library. I had never heard of her before. Still, I had heard some of her songs, because I have a life-long fascination for and revulsion at country music. Taylor Swift was all over country radio by the time I read about her in November 2008. I was most surprised at the wide variety of styles in the songs she had written. They did not all sound like they had been written by the same person and certainly not by someone so young. Yes, I would even call her a prodigy.

I became familiar enough with her first CD that I could sing along with all the songs without knowing their titles. It had been years since I listened to anything often enough for that to happen. I told people—the few to whom I admitted my affinity for the young songstress—that she put me in touch with my inner fifteen-year-old girl. I read one of the Twilight series books a few years earlier, hoping I could use it to build bridges with my confirmation class, which was mostly female that year. Not so much. The longing for an unspeakably beautiful yet unattainable vampire boyfriend simply is nowhere in my heart waiting to emerge.

Following my discovery of Taylor Swift, I contacted the girls I had dated when either I or they were fifteen. Facebook and Google make this kind of journey down memory lane possible. (How did I used to waste time?) Really, I wanted to know, “Does Taylor Swift express what you were feeling during our cavity-prone years back in Peoria in the 1980s?” Wendy, Sarah, and Rebecca all answered, “Yes.”

It is extraordinary that someone so young can be so articulate. She sings about the struggles and worries of American teenagers and makes those struggles real. Just because they are the concerns of young people, who will presumably grow up and face different difficulties, does not make those experiences invalid. I listened to the songs and thought, “I used to feel that way.” Maybe we all did.

Still, I am a forty-nine-year-old man. When I look at the photographs of her on her CDs I want to say, “Young lady, go wash that war paint off your face, and if you think you’re singing a concert dressed like that, think again! March right upstairs and put some clothes on.” Fortunately, both my children are boys, and they are completely indifferent to clothing, learning to drive, and dating.

I already was a committed Taylor Swift fan when her second album, Fearless, came out. I suppose one could say she had grown as an artist and found her voice and was coping with the stresses of stardom and high expectations, which was reflected in her song writing. I did not listen to it so critically or closely, but parts of it really made me feel and remember the insecurities of high school.

She wears short skirts
I wear t-shirts
She’s cheer captain and
I’m on the bleachers

In the liner notes, there’s a photograph of the star sitting in the bleachers, wearing a band uniform and huge black-framed glasses, with a clarinet across her lap. I was in the band. I know that look, that type, the impossibility of being cool, popular, or noticed.

No song had had this effect on me since Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi,”

He was skater boy, she said,
“See ya later, boy.”

Ouch.

So one afternoon while I was listening to Fearless I realized that the emotion that provided this album with its title track was not about a young person feeling invulnerable, bulletproof. She was singing about a kind of courage that comes after fear. She explains all of this in the liner notes, right before she thanks thirty-nine people by name, her fans, her record company, country radio… at my age it is really hard to make all of this out, the print is so small.

This album is called “FEARLESS,” and I guess I’d like to clarify why we chose that as the title. To me, “FEARLESS” is not the absence of fear. It is not being completely unafraid. To me, FEARLESS is having fears. FEARLESS is having doubts. Lots of them. To me, FEARLESS is living in spite of those things that scare you to death…. It’s FEARLESS to have faith that someday things will change… You have to believe in love stories and prince charmings and happily ever after. That’s why I write these songs. Because I think love is FEARLESS.

I understand that feeling, the “in spite of” will that one feels when facing a difficult situation for which one is completely unprepared and acting decisively and with integrity. Fearless, in the Swiftian sense, does not deny fear, but confronts and transcends it. This is really profound. Where had I heard that before?

Oh right, seminary. I go to my bookshelf and find a thin volume from my first year. “Courage is the affirmation of one’s essential nature, one’s inner aim or entelechy, but it is an affirmation which has in itself the character of ‘in spite of.’” That is Paul Tillich writing in The Courage to Be (Yale University Press, 1952). The Courage to Be is exactly what Taylor Swift describes in her music. The Courage to Be manifests itself in different ways, at different stages of life.

The way you feel when you’re dancing in a storm in your best dress? “Fearless” to Taylor Swift.

The way I feel when I’m preaching prophetically, knowing that a third of the congregation is uncomfortable with where I stand but needing to speak these truths clearly? “The Courage to Be” to Tom Willadsen.

I find it amazing that an adolescent American girl with a guitar can reach the same, life-affirming notion as a German-American existential theologian did sixty years ago. Perhaps there is a universal truth that they both found in their own ways. It is hard to be oneself, scary even. And it is also the best way to be fully alive.

 

The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

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