Why Big Bird’s Heartbreaking Tale Matters

The story of Big Bird calling up a little boy in a cancer ward went viral under the title, “Big Bird Broke Our Hearts Today,” and for good reason: It’s a massive tear-jerker. Sweet and quiet and redeeming and heartbreaking.

But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s important. BIG and important.

Until recently, almost nobody had ever heard of Caroll Spinney. He’s been playing the same exact character on the same show for more than 40 years, and nobody ever even saw his face. He made sure of it by asking photographers to never publish images of him outside of his costume. I mean, who does that?

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1969 photo Spinney requested not be published so it wouldn’t ruin the character for the children.

Why didn’t he, at some point, leverage his success to take on “more challenging roles”? Or roles that at least showed his face, set him up for bigger roles? Maybe his own show. He could have been a superhero!

Isn’t that how it’s done?

Instead, he chose to stay in the same place. Some people would call that stagnation. Some people would say that it was a waste of his talent, or that it was cowardly–why not take some risk? Why not do something bigger and better? I mean, 40 years? Wouldn’t you get BORED?

That’s not how Caroll Spinney saw it. He saw that he had a good thing and that was enough for him. He saw that he was doing something that made a difference, and that was enough for him.

And when he called that little boy, he saw that, “What I say to children can be very important.”

And isn’t that true for all of us? Isn’t it true for the mothers who hold their children while they cry; the mothers without children who see another mother struggling and say, “you can talk to me if you want to”; the grieving mothers who see someone else’s child and do a small kind deed even though inside they are crying?

You (and I) don’t have to be known to the masses. We don’t have to strive for that big promotion or that byline in the major magazine or Best Employee of the Year award. We don’t have to do big things that everybody knows about. None of that really matters anyway. What matters is this:

What we say to children can be very important. And that is enough. That, my friends, IS how you become a superhero.


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