It was a beautiful day. I and 70,000 of my closest friends filled Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia to hear, watch and experience a much-anticipated U2 concert. Our seats were terrible. Well, they were amazing seats in that being just a few rows from the top of the stadium, we had a great view of the city's skyline and saw an amazing sunset that night. On the other hand our tickets made it hard for us to see lead guitarist The Edge without the generous aid of the stage video screen.
Our seats didn't matter to my wife, though. I bought them as a birthday present, as she is a lifelong U2 fan who delightedly sang the words of every song only taking breaks to explain their political or theological relevance. She loves U2. Me? In all honesty (and I say this with a bit of shame), I hadn't heard a lot of their music. Before the show, it would have been hard for me to name three songs. And while I may not have been the band's biggest fan, I have been a fan of their lead singer for a long time.
The tickets were a gift for my wife, but I also purchased them because I wanted to see Bono, the humanitarian, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Time's Person of the Year, the TED Prize winner, the recipient of the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, the Pablo Neruda International Presidential Medal of Honor, the Portuguese Order of Liberty and the NAACP Chairman's Image Award. I wanted to see this world figure, this advocate for the poor and oppressed, in person.
During the concert one gets the impression that it is about much more than music for Bono and the entire group. In the middle of the set, they paused and played a video recording of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected president of Myanmar who was under an illegal house arrest for 20 years. Suu Kyi is an icon of justice. Bono educated those who weren't familiar with her and then held her up as an example of human potential to the audience. He mentioned Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa whose work fighting apartheid and rebuilding his nation has inspired millions of people around the world. He spoke about Amnesty International, the (RED) project and the ONE campaign, which had volunteers at the concert signing people up to volunteer and donate.
They did all of this during the concert.
I was jumping up and down with folks as they played "Vertigo," and I sang out "Oooo, oooo!" while he sang "Elevation," and I pumped my fist during "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (which I knew from their remix with Jay-Z). But I wasn't just entertained. I was moved. I was challenged. And Bono and the entire group's challenge is a subtle one. It's far deeper than asking fans to donate and share of their resources. Nor is it exclusively the message in their lyrics. Their challenge is whispered in their model.
It is a model of transcendence. Their work -- their vocation -- extends beyond what is expected of them. Their vision and concern seems to be about much more than themselves. They are entertainers by trade, and that's all we expect of them. If all they had done over the last 30-plus years was give us music (which is a powerful gift to humanity, by the way), that would have been enough. But that isn't all. Their music makes them a great band. Their vocation, which transcends the music, is what makes them great people and legendary.
And here is the challenge: to be more than what is expected of us, to live our lives with a care and passion that transcends the small spheres around us.
That doesn't fly with all their fans. I once overheard someone declare, "I love their music, but I hate all their save-the-world $#!@. I wish they would shut up and sing!"
This is a part of the vocational transcendence that U2 and many others in the world are challenging us to achieve. Not only do they not have to be doing their "work on the side," but they have the courage to do what they do and say what they say even if it means having some fans that might disagree with them and stop listening to their music. When so many celebrities are afraid to take political and social justice stances because of fear that it will negatively affect their brands, it is refreshing and encouraging when someone breaks the mold and speaks up no matter the risk to their reputation or career.
Sitting under the music of a band whose work and message transcends their day jobs is deeply inspiring. Yeah, they want to get everybody jumping, and of course they want to sell albums and win music awards, but that's not the point. The point is to change the world. The awards, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the platinum albums are just icing on the cake.
The members of U2 are models for other musicians and celebrities to learn from. As I originally drafted this piece, it was going to be about the need for more "Bono-like" figures in the world of professional sports and in other arenas. I had enjoyed thinking about people like Dikembe Mutombo, Roberto Clemente and, more recently, Andre Agassi and the way that their work has transcended what they did while wearing their jerseys. I began to write about how people like Dikembe Mutombo seem to be the exceptions (doing more than just donating money, but having the courage to champion causes and live a life fully for others) and how so many athletes and celebrities are underachieving and not living up to their full world-changing potential. But then I realized that most of us, celebrity or not, aren't living up to our full potential for service -- myself very much included.
We can all be doing more to help better the lives of others. This is what I think he was trying to get at during the concert. We can all be Bono. We may not all have millions of dollars, or the public platform, but we all have hearts that we can care with and mouths that we can educate and challenge others with.
And we don't have to be a celebrity to be like Bono. Just grab a pair of sunglasses and start living your life in a way that puts others first, and you will be on your way.