The View From the Stage

I acknowledge that over the last year I’ve been writing a lot of sad and depressing things. I’ve been going through a really hard time and writing helps me to process the sea of shit my mind often swims in. I’m not always this way; in fact, I’ve spent my life being an incredibly positive and upbeat person. This makes my lows feel deeper sometimes. I often worry far too much about what other people think of me, and I’m finding tremendous healing in opening up about social anxiety and laying it all out for people to read. Of course, it terrifies me. I berate myself endlessly but decide to do it anyway. But maybe if I know that people know, I can stop giving so much of a fuck. I’m not really sure if it’s working yet, but it has to be better than pretending.

Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not writing these things for sympathy. I’m writing them because it terrifies me and this is the logical way of facing that fear.

It’s a weird dichotomy, having the capacity to feel simultaneously good about yourself and hate yourself at the same time. But the good is definitely there, especially on the days when my thinking is a little less stormy. Thinking back, I have this one really beautiful, pure and perfect memory. This one time in my life where I was brave, and exuberant, and incredible. I felt like I could conquer the entire world. But to tell you how I got to that point, I have to back up a little.

When I was a teenager, my mom was really into self-improvement. If there was a book to read, she would read it; a teleclass to listen in on, she was all ears. If there was a seminar or workshop she wanted to go to, she was there, and once in a while she would take me, too.

One time, she signed me up to go with her to this week-long workshop called “Warrior Camp” where you’re supposed to practice facing your fears and in the process learn about yourself. At times the experience was difficult, but I found myself excelling at most of the challenges. Making friends was painful of course, but as far as all of the physical exercises and emotional processes, I realized that there were many things that scare normal people don’t bother me at all. I tackled each experience willingly and with an open mind, but after the first couple of bumps, most of the workshop was unchallenging for me. Then on the third night, all of that went out the window.

The exercise: write a song or poem in ten minutes. If you wanted to volunteer, you could sing or read it out loud to the group of 200-something campers.

Gulp.

A hot flash of panic spread from my instantly knotted stomach and I knew that this was something I needed to do. The whole point of this camp was to face your fears, and here it was — one of my very worst. Deep breaths and butterflies and lots of scribbled words and scratch marks. Ten minutes later, I had a song that I put to paper.

“All right, we’ll take volunteers now.”

Do it. Go. Get in line. COME ON, TIEN. This is your chance.

Feet of lead. I couldn’t move from my chair. I was paralyzed by fear, heart pounding like crazy. I screamed at myself mentally to get a move on, but my body wouldn’t budge. My palms were sweating like crazy. Person after person went up on stage, singing and professing and sharing. I wanted to, but I JUST COULDN’T. IT WAS TOO MUCH.

Go! GOGOGOGOGGOGOGO!!!!! JUST DOOOOO IT!

My foot jerked forward abruptly, and before I knew it jelly-legs were actually wobbling toward the stage. Wait, what? No! I’m actually moving. People are looking at me. I’m going to have to follow through with this! Oh my god. Can I do this?

One of the staff turned suddenly and stepped in my way, blocking my path to the stage. “I’m sorry, but we’re out of time. We can’t take any more.”

WAIT, WHAT!?!?!?

No! You can’t mean that. You can’t tell me I FINALLY got up the guts to get up there and do this something that scares me absolutely shitless, and then take it away from me!

But the staff member was resolute, and directed me back to my seat. I walked sullenly back to the chair and gazed up at the stage.

I felt furious. Yes, a little bit at the staff member, but mostly at myself. I had waited too long. I had hesitated, and hesitated, and hesitated. I second-guessed myself and let my fear get the better of me. Here I was, at this camp where we were supposed to face our fears and the ONE challenge that really would have meant something for me to overcome, and I completely BOMBED it.

I could not stop kicking myself. I was pissed.

I didn’t get over it, either. I was upset at myself for months. I knew I would never get another chance like that again. I wished I could go back in time.

It was a year or so later when I decided to sign up for another workshop by the same company. This one was a much shorter event: just two and a half days up in L.A. helping to get clarity on your life direction and purpose.

The event went smoothly. I was uncomfortable in the sea of people, and yet somehow I could get through it because there was so much acceptance and kindness everywhere I turned. It was this beautiful sanctuary from the regular indifferent coldness of everyday life. It wasn’t until the very end of the very last day that the excitement was starting to die down and things were coming to a close.

“We have one last challenge today. You have ten minutes to write a song or a poem about your life purpose and then we will take volunteers to come up here and sing or share with the group.”

I could not believe my ears. They were actually doing the same thing as they did at warrior camp! It took only a moment to sink in: I was being given a second chance. Only this time, it was a group not of two hundred people, but of two thousand.

There was not a single shred of hesitation in my body. My heart pounded so loud in my ears it drowned out the room full of rustling papers and scratching pencils but I scribbled out a new song about my love for directing movies and telling stories. It was hurried and imperfect, but it rhymed and had a melody. It was a little slice of my heart, written down on paper. Ten minutes later, the speaker returned to the stage and said, “Okay, if you want to share, raise your hand.”

Fuck that.

I leapt to my feet and darted through the crowd of people. I raced up to the side of the stage, and looked at him expectantly. I was the only one that had actually gotten out of their seat. The rest of the crowd was holding up hands so that he might call on them. He turned and looked at me in surprise.

“That’s not really how it works.” He paused, unsure of what to do. “But… okay.”

Oh my God I am really doing this I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M DOING THIS. It’s finally my chance to do it right this time.

I stepped up onto the stage and looked out at a room of TWO THOUSAND PEOPLE. I stepped up to the microphone with a lump in my throat, shaking hand holding on to the crinkled paper with my song lyrics. OH FUCK. I was scared shitless. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to mumble out some kind of preface, but somehow the words tumbled out: “Um, this is really outside of my comfort zone right now.” Then my words turned to ash and I couldn’t get anything else out.

Come on, come on.

I closed my eyes and took a slow, deep breath. Then I opened them and started to sing.

At first my voice was weak and wavering, but then it grew stronger. If it wasn’t for the microphone, I don’t think I could have sung loud enough, but the room was absolutely and utterly silent. I realized that everyone was really listening to me.

The song was short; I don’t think I was up there for more than a minute and a half. Still — it sounds cheesy but time ground to a halt. It was a perfect moment of utter silence. I was doing it. I was up there, singing to two thousand people. ME! I was lucky if I could strike up a conversation with a stranger, much less this.

But I did it. I sang the whole song. And as the last few notes trailed out, I heard nothing around me but the absence of sound.

Then, the entire room ERUPTED. I’m not exaggerating, either. I don’t know if it was because it was obvious that this terrified me or what (I doubt it was my singing voice.) You know how sometimes a few people stand and clap, and then a few more people stand, and a few more, until finally the whole room is giving a standing ovation? Yeah, that didn’t happen. The whole room jumped to their feet in a standing ovation, screaming and cheering. I have never been so bowled over by an overwhelming feeling of total LOVE in all of my years. It was absolutely incredible.

It was one of the very best moments of my life. And one of only a handful of times in my life when I felt completely free and self-expressed and accepted and happy.

Like all things, the moment did end. But every so often I return to it in my head and think, I did it. I didn’t let anything stop me, and I put it all out there. I faced my fears, and found love in a crowd of unfamiliar faces. Some part of me is lovable. Maybe my life does mean something, after all.

2 Responses

  1. Wendy
    | Reply

    I know this story so well. I was in that crowd and was totally in awe of you that evening. You have incredible power. You are one of my hero’s – you always will be. The longer I know you, the more glorious and deeply I get to know who you are and who you are becoming. You are (and have always been) stronger than you realize, more powerful than you feel, and wise beyond the great beyond.

    The light that you are shines strong in this world. I see it and so do 99% of those who meet you. You stand in your own shadow and call yourself darkness and my heart aches because all I have ever seen is you – a pillar of guiding light. You stand strong for your beliefs, your convictions. When others follow the crowd, you speak your heart. And as I’ve listened, your heart is wisdom, you truths are pure and that’s always when is say, “I wanna be you when I grow up.”

    Perhaps you struggle because you KNOW you must be true to you, but you feel the world wanting you to be like them. Trouble begins when you realize that being like “them” is impossible – you can’t be all things to all people. And unlike most of us, you don’t try. You can’t do it. Yet you long to be loved and accepted (as do we all). But inside you know that being as others are, isn’t being loved by them, it’s releasing the tension you FEEL coming from them. So you feel the struggle and call it your darkness.

    One day you you’ll know your strength, your power and you’ll stand within your own light and know it. This is where I hold my vision of you. This is how I see you in my heart. Always have. Always will. You are my hero.

  2. Tien
    | Reply

    Thanks. I appreciate all of that. The reason I have gotten better at standing in my shadow is because I have spent my life running from it, trying to get away, trying to be nothing but light. But the older I get the more I realize that it is the primary source of my own pain. No one is only light or shadow. The beauty of being human is that we are invariably BOTH. Part of being a bright light is having a very dark shadow. It hurts and it is awful when I am drowning in it, but when I come out of it, it is easy to appreciate that I could not be who I am without having both. I am learning not to run so much from the side of myself that I don’t like — learning to make peace with myself and even occasionally embrace the parts of myself I have always run from. It’s messy and I’m human so I’m doing it very imperfectly. But it’s a journey. I am the light, and I am the darkness. We all are.

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