I started training for a new job recently. In a bout of financial exasperation a little while ago, I combed through the job pages on Craigslist, and on a whim, applied for a job assisting with youth baseball classes on the Upper East Side. The ad said they were looking for twenty and thirty-something actors who loved baseball and liked kids and wanted some extra money. I haven’t played baseball in a team setting since about second grade, but I’ve always loved watching the game; not to mention A League of Their Own is one of my favorite movies of all time (For the record, I still get mad that Geena Davis’ Dottie Henson chooses to drop the ball so her sister can win at the end). For two months, I’ll be helping kids aged 3-6 learn how to play baseball in the sunshine and urban oasis of Central Park. It’ll be a nice break from office buildings and audition rooms; a return to the simpler days of recess and moms telling their kids to “go outside and play.”
In starting to interact with these kids during my training sessions, it’s gotten me thinking a lot about barriers and inhibitions; the process of covering up our true identities in order to be more socially accepted or “cool.” We care so much about it that from our teen years on, we never stop trying to be part of the “in crowd” or at least get their nod of approval. Music, fashion, technology, movies; these things are all built around the here and now, the new, the “it factor.” They are, as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous would say, an “industry of cool.”
The kids I’ve been working with fall anywhere from three to six, and most of them are boys. When they come in to class, they all want to tell you about their pets or the crazy thing they did at recess. Several of them do very impressive (and accurate) impersonations of Spongebob Squarepants and Phineas & Ferb. They’re willing to try anything and everything you suggest (for the most part), laughing when you make a silly face or do a weird accent. They have vibrant, vast imaginations. These kids run on raw instinct, energy, and emotion; every action or feeling is big and bold, no hesitations. For them, “cool” doesn’t exist yet nor do these layers and masks we pile on as adults to keep people from seeing our weird, wonderful inner-selves. Kids are beautifully unfiltered creatures, feeling and exploring every nook and cranny of the world without fear or rules. It’s all play and no work.
What happens to us? What is the trigger for this gradual switch from uninhibited and thoughtless expression to secrets and suppressed instincts and feelings? Somewhere in our formation as human beings, we forget how to do things because we want to or express our thoughts because we must. We become self-conscious about every word, every outfit, and every action because we’re looking to be accepted by everyone else instead of accepting ourselves first. Kids don’t understand that, but somewhere, somehow they learn this behavior.
One of my favorite television shows of all time is Mad Men. The very core of the show is about Don Draper struggling between who he was and who he’s become. Much of Don’s struggle with identity stems from his childhood; in many ways, it’s always the thing against which he battles the most. He is a self-made man, crafting a new, slick identity to cover up his past as an unhappy nobody. But the kicker is that the more Don tries to convince himself that is happy with his “new” life – whether that be landing a huge ad account, wedding a young secretary, or ordering around his creative team – the unhappier he ultimately becomes, because he’s spent most of his life pretending to be something and somebody he’s really not.
Don Draper is an enigma; he’s a master of disguise. He’s the perfect example of the suppression of desires, because he proves the more you squash those instincts, the unhappier and more unfulfilled you become. As a result, when he DOES give in to his raw instincts, the outcomes are often explosive. That’s part of what makes Mad Men such a delight to watch (other than the fact the acting and writing are superb; SOMEONE PLEASE GIVE JON HAMM AN EMMY ALREADY).
I took my very first meditation class yesterday, and at risk of sounding like a total cliché, it was a fairly eye-opening experience. My fabulous acting teacher, Robyn Lee, put together what she calls the “Color Spa,” which is an interactive meditation class using colored lights and principles of the light spectrum to re-calibrate the mind, body, and spirit (to find out more about this event or her upcoming NYC acting classes, hop on over to HERE). It may sound New Age-y, but instead of judging how weird I may or may not have looked, I let myself succumb to the experience, using my imagination and body without limitations. In allowing myself to act without restraints, I felt fresh and stripped bare of all the clutter I’ve accumulated for so long in my body and mind and even heart. It was almost out-of-body; I felt like I was seeing myself in a different light (no pun intended). I realized how much I personally judge and edit my words and actions before I put them out into the world. Why do I spend so much time editing myself for the world? What happened to really, truly being yourself?
I think most of us take that whole “look before you leap” thing too seriously: we spend so much time on the looking that we often don’t leap at all. Kids, on the other hand, usually leap first and deal with the consequences later. What we should strive for is something in between: being flexible enough to know when to just leap and have faith we’ll land on solid ground and when we should look first to see whether the leap will be worth it. We can all learn something from these kids who so lovingly and willingly give themselves over to their rambunctious spirit. We can all choose to let go and just be like kids do every day, taking the ins and outs of every day life with aplomb.
So I’m looking forward to returning to my youth as I work with these kids, running around and doing silly voices. No judgments or editing. No Don Draper emotional layering or looking before I leap. After all, if you never leap, how can you know whether or not you can soar?
“From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master, total and absolute,
Listening to others and considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.” – Walt Whitman