Sunday, September 22, 2013

leaving the safety zone

there is a similarity between my previous career as a stage performer, and my current career as a psychotherapist.  don't worry about wondering what the similarity is, because i am going to tell you outright and make it easy!  in both of these careers, my experience with the "emotions" involved were one step removed. let me explain.

as an actor, i expressed some strong emotions onstage:  rage, passion, grief, sadness, joy, desperation, and on and on.  but though i was expressing these emotions, they were not necessarily mine.  i was bringing to life a character through my body and my voice, so i liken it to drinking a hot beverage without any danger of burning my tongue.

does that make sense?  it was SAFE to be an actor, because it was a place to experience intensity within the confines of the stage environment.  no matter how bad it got onstage, my tidy, safe life was waiting for me right outside the dressing room door.

i left the stage for many reasons but mostly because there came a point where i felt tired of "pretending" all the time--i found myself yearning for experiences of intensity that were mine and mine only--not just those belonging to a playwright.

eventually, i became a psychotherapist.

what do i do in the therapy room?  i sit and listen to the intense experience of my clients, and i "ride the rollercoaster" with them through the rage, passion, grief, sadness, joy, desperation, and on and on.  but though i may be at their side, it is their ride we are on. my experience in the room is one step removed from the reality of their experiences, so it is safe for me. once the session ends, they continue with their experience, while i go back to my tidy, safe life.

perhaps not so much of a progression, methinks.

as followers of this blog know, i have spent a considerable amount of time this past year deciding how to be a gay man who is over 50 years of age (here, here, and here). one of the conclusions that i arrived at early on was that this milestone age marker perhaps signaled my transition from "active shaper of society and culture" to the somewhat more passive position of "observer of society and culture", combined with the adoption of the "wise elder" moniker.  you know what i am talking about:  the guy gently rocking in his chair with the twinkle in his eye and candy in his pockets for the kiddies.  the guy who you go to if you need a bandage on your knee or a salve for your broken heart.  the guy who has seen and done it all and who is now content with offering sage counsel to those poor younger folk who continue to struggle with all the existential angst that life has to offer.  the guy who has lived fully but is not yet ready to die, who knows it all but plays dumb for laughs, who does not mind renouncing passion because that is, after all, a young man's game.

but funny things often happen once we come to a conclusion about anything at all. messiness interferes.

for years now i have talked to my clients about the nature of life, that it is not all neat and tidy like in the movies, nor does it abide by the rules of religion or society (as history has shown).  the only rules that life abides by are the rules of physics, and the only rules that the earth abides by are the rules of nature (another word for physics), which is governed by cause and effect, and which is constantly changing due to multiple forces creating cause. thus, messiness.  but nature's messiness can often be glorious--it is not at all like the messiness of a dirty clothes hamper or an unflushed toilet (which can be poetic in its own way).  not at all.  the messiness i refer to is the messiness i so often portrayed on the stage; the messiness i so often listen to in my therapy office; the messiness i have so carefully tried to keep outside my door.

here is the part of the story they don't tell you.  that guy, you know the one i just described who is sitting comfortably in the rocking chair with the twinkle in his eye?  well, he is facing his own messiness: his impending death.  he may be calm and peaceful and wise, but he also knows that his time is running out, and that it may get painful on the way there.  messy.  and yet if he is wise, he just continues rocking away, not to avoid the messiness, but to face it.


i have been a bit too careful in my life--not in all areas, but certainly around my emotional life.  how do i know?  well, two signs.  one is that my tidy, safe life was feeling, um, how shall i put this--uninspiring?  just a bit.  the second sign is that a big chunk of messiness just dropped into my life out of the blue.  yep.  and all of a sudden, i am feeling and reeling and experiencing all over the messy place.  i am doing in my life, suddenly, what i have years of experience doing secondhand.  i have been yanked out of the fucking rocking chair by a force of nature, and after the initial shock, i am finding that my feet can still run.  and my heart can still beat. messy.  glorious messiness.

i have had reasons to be careful.  they are good reasons.  really good reasons.  but being too careful while i am messily alive is kind of like trying to dry myself off while i am still in the pool.  doesn't really work.

there is a big difference between being reckless and being risky.  the former is foolish and dangerous, while the latter is a way to embrace messiness.  currently, i am discovering why i was drawn to portray all those messy characters on the stage, and why i am drawn to listen to all those messy experiences my clients bring into the therapy room.  THAT is where life is.

in the messiness.


  1. Tony, I have no intention of adding to your wisdom - - I just want to say how much I enjoyed reading it. You've explained things beautifully and this is a profound post.

    Also, I want to thank you for sending the blog link about Selma Ave. It sure brought back memories. When I was in Hollywood, Selma wasn't quite as notorious as it had been in the 50's and 60's but it was still an occasionally cruisy area.
    I sure remember that First Baptist Church. It was the site of some hot after-midnight encounters.

    1. Thank you, Jon, for upgrading my awareness to "wisdom"! I'll take it, but with a grain of salt. And I am glad you enjoyed the Selma Ave. post--it is a shadow of its shady past, but the echoes will always be there.

  2. I'm going to try this one more time because Google won't seem to allow my comment. So if my original post miraculously shows up, please forgive this one.

    I think we need a little messiness to keep life interesting. The man with the twinkle in his eye can be content sitting all day in his chair, but he needs to get up every once-in-a-while, take a stroll around the block, maybe enjoy the leaves rustling at the park or avoid the doggy landmines creeping onto the sidewalk.

    But as you mentioned, there is a big difference between being reckless and being risky. Recklessness seems to negate thinking, taking things into consideration; risky gives you the option to step back and walk away after considering the alternatives.

    1. Hi Greg, all of the comments did go through, so I just published the most complete one! I agree that sometimes ya just gotta get the hell up out of the chair! Sometimes we motivate ourselves to do that, and other times, as I write about in this post, we are YANKED out!

  3. this was marvelous; thanks for sharing it. THereis a lot here to ponder.