The instructions went something like this: The first row goes first. The people stand up, walk single file onto the stage, stop, and turn to face the rest of the group. They will stand at the front edge of the stage without speaking, moving, averting their face, or closing their eyes for five minutes: five minutes exposed on stage, without a script or a role or a job to perform, five full minutes of being observed without distraction, after which they will file off the stage and return to their seats while the second row rises. Every person in the 200+ member audience gets a turn being on stage. The only other instructions were to “be present” and “see what came up.”
I took the est training, a self-help seminar that promised personal transformation, at least four times between the ages of 10 and 17, and each time I sat there in my vinyl seat in the windowless conference room of the Jack Tar Hotel on Van Ness in San Francisco, watching as row after row of people lined up for their turn, I was stunned with the economy and impact of this exercise. What a cheap and effective way to shake people up, one that doesn’t require plane tickets or hot coals or parachutes or prescriptions or meditation or years and years of therapy. Just stick them on stage and watch them fall apart: that’s a lot of bang for your buck.
Each group contained about twenty people whose reactions ran the gamut. I watched while practiced smiles slowly hardened into grimaces and then finally dissolved to reveal a multitude of surprises. Some spontaneously combusted, weeping and quivering like open wounds for the duration, while others stood still and stiff as petrified trees. Some pulled a disappearing act, psychically retreating to some other dimension, while others blossomed, and others held it together until the sound of someone else’s sobbing took them down. Many simply spent the entire time trying to figure out what to do with their eyes and their hands while the trainers paced up and down the aisles, barking stock phrases: “Your entire life has been spent trying to look good or avoid looking bad. What a waste of life.” “Ask yourself this question: Who are you trying to impress?” “Listen to the voice in your head, that smug little voice, always judging everyone and everything. You are an asshole.” “Drop the act, for once in your life. Get over yourself. Get off it.” “You are inauthentic. But even worse, you are inauthentic about being inauthentic.” It was a fascinating spectacle and never before or since have I witnessed such panic or seen grown men and women weeping openly and perfectly sane-looking strangers become so unhinged.
The people barking at us were missing/hiding an important point: the sad, beautiful fact that we are all unique and that even in the harshest environments, some people will adapt and perhaps actually flourish while others will get hurt; others will always be hurt. Still others will escape without being touched at all. You might get paid a lot of money to put on your “Marine Life Rescue” uniform, gather up all the creatures you find and plop them into a saltwater tank, but you can’t take credit for teaching a fish how to swim, you can’t blame the garden slug for not “getting it.” Fish swim. But the slug is just not the right character for this story.
We were all there together, trying simultaneously to be seen and to hide, but when it was my turn, even though I was on the stage with 19 other people, even though when I had sat in that audience I had felt nothing but empathetic curiosity, on stage I felt alone. I fully understood the effect of contrived intimacy and the relativity of truth and realized that even in a room full of people, with 400 eyeballs turned in my direction, I might never be recognized, not even by my self.