“The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essence is not to be afraid” – Rebbe Nachman of Breslav
In mid-December I attended Story Slam Boulder, an open microphone event. Audience members could put their name in a hat to share a personal tale by heart, on stage. The evening’s theme? “Naughty or Nice”. Knowing I wanted to face my fear of public speaking and revealing, I created and rehearsed a short, rhyming piece about a Christmas Eve dim-sum date I went on a few years ago, where I committed the naughtiness of gluttony (and, as a result, the “niceness” of remaining fully clothed after that). The story and verse were less important than simply mustering the nerve to get on stage.
Once I put my name in the hat, my mind started to torture me with various catastrophes: I’d forget my lines, I’d get booed, no one would laugh, I’d make a fool of myself, etc. My heart pounded and my fingers twitched even though, in that moment, I was just sitting at a table, sipping water. While not being chased by a saber toothed tiger or ducking rotten tomatoes hurled by a disgruntled audience, my body, caught up in an imaginary and horrible future, couldn’t tell the difference. Not being a drinker, I couldn’t calm my nerves with a cocktail. That I had put my name in the hat suddenly felt like the worst idea ever, something I would never, ever do in my right mind. Clearly, I must be insane, not inspired! I wanted to turn back the clock, to have stayed home and done something safe, like read someone else’s words from a book. But having allowed my central nervous system to hijack my heart’s desire many times in my life, I knew I had to walk to the stage if, and when, my name was called. Thank goodness the mistress of ceremonies drew my name relatively early in the evening, so I didn’t have to poach too long in my distress.
The trip from my seat to the stage was just a few seconds. Under lights so bright I could not see anyone, I entered the present moment, where fear doesn’t dare to tread. Stage fright, as it turns out, happens before getting on stage. With the microphone in hand, I engaged the audience by asking them to complete various lines of my rhyme. After hearing a few laughs floated my way, I relaxed when I occasionally paused to remember what came next. That my delivery was not flawless made it more real. To my surprise, somewhere during my less than three minute “act”, I realized I was having fun, not just enduring the experience and wishing for it to be over. Afterwards, back at my seat, ex-post stage fright stealthily returned, masquerading as doubt. No one else had told a story set to verse…what had I been thinking? Shouldn’t I have followed a straight up, story telling format? What if I had just made a fool of myself, laughter and applause notwithstanding?
When the slam ended, I gathered my belongings to leave. a woman approached me to introduce herself. She, too, was named Ilona! She told me I had been fearless for going on stage.
Here’s a secret: There is no such thing as fearlessness. There is only facing fear. Facing fear boils down to tolerating if not welcoming temporary discomfort if not disorientation (such as when learning how to do a flip turn). Facing fear means telling all of the cells, neurons and nerves in your body that, this time, you are going to throw away the familiar script. It’s perfectly normal for them to freak out and scream, “Uh oh!”. And if there’s another secret, it’s that breathing slowly and deeply can help transform that “uh oh!” into an “Oh, Yeah!”. Facing fear is not something we do once. And I’m not sure it ever gets easier, except that if we do it enough we remember that it didn’t kill us before, so we can face it again.
Last week someone shared copyrighted photographs from the story slam. The look on my face said “Oh, Yeah!”. I plan to refer often to this image because it is a reminder of how facing the darkness of our fears allows our light to shine more brightly.