Mandy Harvey will have a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving, and it goes way beyond the fact that the deaf singer-songwriter earned millions of fans and a fourth-place finish on the TV series “America’s Got Talent” this past summer. She says that the struggles she’s endured since losing her hearing at age 19 have made her a more “complete person,” moved her toward a deeper relationship with – and understanding of – God, and given her wisdom and courage she might never have otherwise gained.
You might be asking, “How can a deaf person be a singer when she can’t hear what she sounds like?” During a “Christopher Closeup” interview about her memoir “Sensing the Rhythm: Finding My Voice in a World Without Sound,” Mandy told me that her years of musical training growing up, along with her near perfect pitch, help immensely.
Beyond that, she uses electronic tuners that give her a visual cue when she hits the right note. Then she practices for hours upon hours, learning to recognize how certain notes vibrate in her throat or chest or nasal cavity.
Singing, however, was not how Mandy envisioned her future. She was attending college to become a vocal music teacher when she completely lost her hearing over a period of several months. After a lifetime of suffering from hearing issues, her worst fear had come true, and it left her deeply angry and afraid.
Mandy said, “I made the mistake of attaching my entire identity to singing and music…I didn’t know who I was anymore…It swirled me into a depression I did not know I was ever gonna fully get out of.”
Having grown up with a father who is a minister, Mandy believed in God and had a foundation of faith that could have helped her deal with this major detour in her life. Instead, some of her Christian Bible study peers made her feel worse by telling her that God would restore her hearing if only she had enough faith.
Mandy said, “It wasn’t just me…There was another gentleman who lost his wife in childbirth and his two-year-old daughter was dying of cancer – and they were doing the same thing to him: [saying] ‘If you just had enough faith, your faith would move mountains.’ But what you’re telling me is that this is my fault and my responsibility and I have the will to manipulate God in some manner to make my life perfect. That’s just wrong. Instead of praying for me to have strength or wisdom to make good decisions or patience to deal with the day-to-day, they kept praying for a miracle that wasn’t happening – and then blaming me when it didn’t.”
Mandy’s father came to see that many people practice what he calls a “theology of the healthy” that believes all your dreams will come true if you just try hard enough. Mandy came to realize that some dreams actually die and can’t be resurrected no matter what. That doesn’t mean you can’t find fulfillment in new dreams; it just acknowledges that sometimes old goals become impossible to achieve.
She explained, “It’s funny how much advice you get from people who aren’t actually in pain. They always have quick fixes, [like] ‘stay positive, stay true to yourself, and keep your eyes focused on what’s really important.’ When your world has just shattered, there’s nothing that you’re gonna be able to say that’s gonna pull me out of my funk in two seconds. This is a process, and I needed to learn not just how to get back into music. That wasn’t even close to the idea. It was learning how to wake up and breathe and be okay with the fact that my life has changed.”
Mandy’s conversations with her father eventually led her to a new understanding of life and God that acknowledges the world is broken, and that genetics, free will, and bad decisions play a major part in our struggles: “[I learned] that God’s not a bully with a stick beating you down. He’s holding your hand, hoping you’re going to take another step forward. I wish that we could all understand that the world is broken, that life is messy and bad things happen. We’re not supposed to have all of the answers or try to figure it out or sugarcoat every moment. We’re supposed to hold each other’s hands and say, ‘We’re gonna get through this together. What can I do for you?’ Why can’t we ask those questions instead of just telling me how to fix my life. Ask me how you can help.”
The biggest sources of help in Mandy’s life were her parents who patiently supported and loved her, even when she was self-admittedly “angry and rude.” As time passed, they encouraged her to create opportunities for herself by taking American Sign Language (ASL) classes and getting involved with the local deaf community.
By saying “yes” to those opportunities, she opened herself to saying “yes” to life again. That especially held true when her father asked her to try playing and singing music with him, like they had done throughout her childhood. There was no vision at the time that Mandy could build a music career; he just wanted to see if there could still be a place in her life for her true passion. As Mandy said, “He was just pushing in a loving way. He always says, ‘You have to love your children to hope.'”
Another pivotal moment came when Mandy was home alone and fell down the stairs. “I lay there on the floor and thought to myself, ‘I’m gonna lay here forever,'” she recalled. “I’m gonna give up forever – unless I don’t. I had a lot of people encouraging me constantly, but all of that meant nothing if I didn’t make the choice myself. And so I made the choice to stand up. I didn’t see light or hope or happiness, but I was determined that I was going to make it. So it was taking a lot of small steps, one after another.”
One of those steps came through a conversation she shared with her friend Erik Weihenmayer, who co-founded the non-profit No Barriers USA. Despite being blind, Erik has climbed Mount Everest and reached “the top seven summits on all the continents,” so he works to help people with or without disabilities overcome barriers in their own lives.
Erik asked Mandy why she wasn’t writing her own music. She responded that she was afraid. “What’s the worst that can happen?” he replied. And that led to another epiphany.
Mandy said, “I [didn’t] have an answer for that. I survived the thing I knew for sure was going to kill me. And I didn’t die. I’m here and I’m still chasing music. What’s the worst that can happen? At least I’m telling my stories, even if no one wants to hear them. They’re mine and I’m expressing myself and it’s therapeutic and it’s beautiful. And so the reason why I even started writing music was just an honest conversation between friends.”
Mandy’s willingness to follow the opportunities that God was putting in her path led her to “America’s Got Talent” in 2017 and facing a different type of fear. She says she’s not the kind of person who needs attention, and feels somewhat uncomfortable in front of crowds. So why did she do it?
Mandy explained, “Singing at this point is very much for other people. I don’t get to hear it as it comes out, so I’m singing for you. I’m trying to encourage you and make you smile. If that means I have to put myself in uncomfortable situations, so be it.”
And just like so many people were a source of God’s light and hope to Mandy when she was in a period of darkness, she is now the same for them: “So many people have reached out and they’re telling me their stories and their pain and they’re not giving up because of something that I said. Them not giving up is going to encourage other people to not give up, and it’s going to have a ripple effect…So why wouldn’t you want to be a part of it?”
In the end, Mandy is not only grateful for the blessings she has experienced, but for the fact that she gets to be a blessing to others while doing what she loves. It’s a journey she’s traveling with God at her side.
She concludes, “I don’t see God as a bully with a stick anymore. I aim to see him as a Father, as somebody who cries with you when you fail or struggle – and someone who is encouraging you when you get back up and wants you to do wonderfully. I’m very aware that just because bad things happen, doesn’t mean that it’s because God looked the other way. But there’s a lot of growing that’s happening in my life, even still. That’s the beautiful thing about having a relationship: it’s an everyday learning experience, and I feel like I have a lot more faith and lot more trust than I ever did.”
(To listen to my full interview with Mandy Harvey, click on the podcast below):