Sunday, December 9, 2007

Life is a Stage

Life has always reminded me of theater. As events unfold or as the script changes, we continually decide what roles we would like to play. Some roles encompass the personality traits of the savior, the temptress, the helpless, the noble, the caretaker, the scholar, the Casanova, the entertainer, the misunderstood, the clown, the optimist, the reclusive, the family man, the philanthropist, the entrepreneur, or the industrialist. Character roles help define our identity. If a role resembles a stereotype, it is easier to play. The interaction among characters defines the script. At times, we improvise and control the script and at other times, we just play whatever the role demands.

The major difference between life and a play is that we take life more seriously. We believe some roles last a lifetime and it is hard to determine when the curtain has fallen. Many of us do not know when it is time to perform in a different play. For example, many women function as caretakers until all the children leave home. At that point, the woman can continue playing the caretaker to her spouse or her friends or she can portray a different character. We all have the power to decide what roles we would like to play even if it appears that external circumstances require a certain performance.

At different times, people can choose whether they want to be “actors” or part of the audience. Many people choose acting because they like attention. Other people are actors because they want to directly influence the performance. If they want a comedy, they can create one. If they want a tragedy, their environment becomes one.

I thought I wanted to be an actor because I liked having control over my experiences; but my assumptions were wrong. It took me a long time to realize that theatrical control is an illusion because actors are strongly influenced by the audience’s reaction and acceptance. If the performance is not accepted, the actor usually improvises and changes the performance, in an effort to be accepted. This is why actors usually care so much about what other people think. Actors never act for themselves, but for others, so in effect they are giving up control of their lives to other people. By being an actor, I was giving people the opportunity to review my performance. As everyone in the audience has the right to review, and most people are critics, the performance is never accepted by everyone. I used to be hurt or angry when the audience didn’t like my performance; but I eventually realized that my emotions were unwarranted. If I don’t want a review of my performance, then I don’t have to act. Instead, I can simply choose to be part of the audience.

Many actors do not pay attention to the reviews because they have confidence in their own performance. By ignoring the reviews, control is returned to the actor. If a particular audience doesn't appreciate the performance, the actor can find a different audience. Actors maintain control if they have the confidence to understand that it is the audience's lack of appreciation, rather than the performance, that causes the bad reviews.

For example, suppose a brilliant Shakespearean actor is performing to an audience of children in kindergarten. Undoubtedly, the children will hate the performance even if the actor is the best Shakespearean actor who ever lived. If Shakespearian actors continually try to please grade school audiences, they eventually realize that they have to act like a clown to get acceptance. Confident actors will not compromise their performance; instead they will find an audience who can appreciate the value of a good Shakespearean performance.

I know some people who have become brilliant “actors.” Everyone likes them and they are usually the center of attention. Skillfully, they have realized the needs of the audience and their performance adjusts to please the reviewers. These people have many acquaintances but very few real friends. Penetrating the superficiality of the performance is reserved for a select few (or for no one). Often these people spend so much energy pleasing others or adapting their performance that they become unsure about who they really are. Even the “actor” has difficulty understanding what lies beneath his or her own fa├žade.

When I was younger, I also “acted” for others but then realized that if everyone accepted me, then I was merely a conformist. In essence, I was just portraying a character that was like everyone else. If everyone accepted me, then basically, I was no different from anyone else. My uniqueness remained hidden behind an acceptable performance. When I got older, I changed my performance to reflect my individuality and subconsciously, I wanted the audience to reject me. If I was rejected, I could be certain that my differences were obvious. I knew that everyone would not like the unique person that I had become but at least I was being true to myself. Later in life, I found that I no longer needed an audience’s rejections because I didn’t have anything to prove. I knew I was different and I didn’t need other people’s reactions to reassure me of my individuality. Once I had proven my uniqueness to myself, I stopped giving people explicit reasons to reject me.

When it comes to developing close friendships with others, I am still looking the right audience. I know I can't compromise my uniqueness only because certain people can't accept it. A person’s lack of approval only means that the audience isn't appropriate for the performance. I have learned that I need to be wise enough to understand when the performance needs to be altered, and I need to be strong enough to walk away from an inappropriate audience.

Appreciating a person’s individuality is also similar to appreciating a bottle of Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux. Few people understand the complexities of a bottle of Lafite; and a person who has not acquired a discriminating palate is unwilling to pay its high price (which costs $300-$1,000 a bottle). If a bottle of Lafite is not recognized as being significantly different from a $10 bottle of Beaujolais Villages, why would anyone pay the extra $290?

To appreciate Lafite, a person has to have the commitment to acquire a discriminating palate, which could take many years. Sophisticated wine connoisseurs gladly pay the price for Lafite because they understand that its subtle differentiation distinguishes it from all the other wines in the world and they believe that it is worth at least $300 to experience its uniqueness of flavor. Undoubtedly, the bottle of Lafite stays on the shelf longer than the Beaujolais Villages because there are fewer people in the world who appreciate the value of Lafite and only the minority is willing to pay the high price for its benefits. However, the few people who decide to purchase Lafite understand that they have just purchased a rare treat and they appreciate the experience to the fullest degree.

Lafite shouldn't be shared with someone who cannot distinguish one wine from another because its value would be wasted; and unique individuals should be patient enough to wait for people who can appreciate them. They may not be "purchased" very often but when they are, they can be sure that the “buyer” understands and appreciates the value of their differences.

Undoubtedly, some people buy Lafite for all the wrong reasons. Since its reputation is praised by wine connoisseurs, individuals who cannot appreciate its value may choose to purchase the wine in an attempt to impress others or as a way of pretending that they can distinguish a good wine from an inferior one. In the same vein, pretentious people can desire someone’s “external packaging” without an appreciation of the person’s individuality. Attractive women or wealthy men are often chosen for all the wrong reasons. Impressing other people or satisfying one’s ego in the short-term becomes more important than ensuring long-term compatibility. Eventually, the benefits of the “acquisition” fade and the relationship ends with unhappiness and bitterness. External “resumes” should never be more important than a person’s true intrinsic value.

When I dated someone, I could easily tell if he could not appreciate the value of my differences. Often, I would end the relationship by telling him that he didn’t really want me. Instead, he really wanted to “drink a different bottle.” My dates never understood this rejection. They insisted that I was wrong. How could I be telling them what they wanted? I knew they wanted someone who was cute, nice and fun and they thought that I fit these descriptors. Yet, they failed to appreciate the complexity of my character. I knew the person who was “right” for me would appreciate the uniqueness that I had worked so hard to achieve.

If life is a stage and if we all are its performers, then we need to see beyond people’s costumes to appreciate their souls. Sometimes a disguise merely conceals the characteristics of a unique individual who is afraid of rejection. Masks make us feel that we easily fit into society because our costumes usually reflect other people’s expectations. Masks are a form of fake conformity. When we take off our disguises, we reveal ourselves, which means that we also reveal our vulnerabilities. If we weren’t afraid of judgment, we wouldn’t be afraid of removing our masks. It is similar to Halloween. When we walk into the party as someone else, we are free to act out any character trait without judgment. When we take off the mask, all our actions are attributable to us.

Normality appears to be beneficial, but it only means that a person is exactly the same as everyone else. Even if people appear to be the same, they are not; and striving for abnormality is actually a strength. In society, we need to be able to accept differences by allowing people to remove their masks. Kevin Spacey once said that actors are healthy because they can express hidden elements of their personality through characters that are different from themselves. Are any of us any different? Doesn’t a mask allow us to express certain personality traits behind a disguise that appears to be different from ourselves?

It takes guts to remove the mask, but there are also benefits. We breathe easier because we can be forthright and honest regardless of the consequences. How many people are strong enough to expose their true character? How many people really know who they are? Do we wear masks because we are hiding from ourselves? If we take off our masks, are we afraid of what we will see? In the Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the truth.” Our masks can make us believe that our external personas (or how others perceive us) characterize our true identity. We may become confused between the person we are in public and the person who is hidden behind the socially acceptable performance.

Marianne Williamson says, “We are all afraid on some level that if people saw who we really are, they would recoil in horror. That is why we invent the mask, to hide our true selves. But the true self…is that which is most beautiful. We must reveal ourselves at the deepest level in order to find out how lovable we really are. When we dig deeply enough into our real nature, we do not find darkness. We find endless light…our safety actually lies in letting down our mask. But we cannot do this when we’re constantly afraid of being judged…we need to feel safe enough to be ourselves, knowing that our darkness will not be judged but forgiven.”

Individuals need to stop letting their external roles define who they are. We need to let go of our egos and our comparisons to others. As Wayne Dyer says, “Your ego believes you are what you do, what you have, what others think of you. Your ego believes you are separate from everyone else… Thus, that ego is always judging, evaluating and comparing you to others. When you don’t measure up, you engage in self-contempt. Then you review how many times you failed and turn those self-perceived failures into self-hate.” Who we are and what we do or what we project may be completely different from each other (in fact, it is more common that you do what you are instead of the other way around). There needs to be an honest evaluation of the difference between the essence of our true character and the masks that we wear. Costumes should be saved for Halloween, which is a time when frightening characters expose themselves to the world. All of our positive emotions cannot be expressed through a disguise. Love, generosity, compassion, and understanding require an honest expression of emotion.

If we take off our masks, we can reveal ourselves openly, which allows us to experience the spiritual liberation that comes from expressing our individuality. Freedom is achieved when we can unveil ourselves with confidence, without fear that others will negatively judge all the positive qualities that make us different from everyone else.

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