The Very Bad Show
It was some time after college that I was recruited to be in a play?a community theatre presentation of some renown. An acquaintance had poured his soul into writing a stage drama and wanted me to play a crucial role in it. It was an especially important part as there were only two characters in the whole show. The set design was spare. The theme of the play concerned a serious subject. The format was that we would be on stage, just the two of us, in deep conversation the entire evening.
It was an especially busy time in my life, though, and I guess things got away from me in terms of preparation. Honestly, the whole lead up to that night is blurry, but when I stepped out onto the stage under the lights in front of a packed house, I suddenly realized I?d never even glanced at the script. I didn't know a single one of my lines, not even the first one. The play immediately crashed and burned. Still on stage, the playwright stared right through me both crestfallen and furious. The audience members all began to stand up to leave, many shaking their heads in dark shades of disappointment and disgust. One man said what many must have been thinking--that I should be ashamed of myself. A young girl, just before heading up the aisle, turned to me to say I?d let everyone down. The woman next to her said that my career both in show business and most likely anything else I might want to do in life was over. I crumpled onto the stage, the lights still burning down upon me. Someone kicked me in the torso. I deserved it.
This was, as best I can tell, when I woke up. But I didn't wake up completely. Instead, in that liminal space between the dream state and coming fully awake, I began to anxiously consider how I could have been so negligent. How had I not even managed to open the script? It was inexcusable. Unforgivable. What a debacle. Then, just then, those magical chemicals that bring one from sleep into full consciousness kicked in, and I realized that what only seconds ago seemed like an insurmountable, intractable, if not existential problem, was completely gone. It had vanished. None of it was real. None of it had actually happened. I sat up in bed. ?Thank God,? I thought. ?It was just a bad dream.?
As I told my wife Kelly about the nightmare and marvelled at how immersive and credible it had all seemed, I felt a measure of relief far beyond what I would associate with having escaped an imaginary disaster in front of Houston's dramatic arts community. Fully awake now, I felt a cascade of equally immersive, credible, and visceral gratitude flowing through me. I considered my actual circumstances. This was my real life, and?at least for a moment?the problems, the hurdles, and all the obstacles in my real life were presented to me from a different perspective. I took a deep breath and thought to myself, this I can handle. This I can do.
A practice from the philosophy of Stoicism called negative visualization puts in our hands a similarly resonant, emotional, positive, soul-strengthening force, if we?re willing to utilize it. Negative visualization is kind of like running a computer simulation every so often of the very worst version of ?the show? we call our lives. The practice dates back to the time of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, and promotes the idea of picturing one's life as disastrous?without a significant other or the community we count on for support. It asks us to imagine our lives without our jobs. Without our health. Without all the other things that make our life recognizable and beautiful as our own.
When one does this--even for a moment--one quickly feels a deep appreciation for the good that's actually present in one's real life and existence. Recognizing not only these blessings, but all the potential catastrophes that have been side-stepped, one wakes up to the windfall and blessing easily detected within one's own actual day-to-day life and readily puts things in a new and gratitude-inducing light.
Certainly, it's important to get the dosage right on all this?just a flicker of negative visualization is plenty. Don't pitch yourself into anxious rumination about all that could go wrong, but take the practice just far enough to feel the immersive grace and the real clemency that one feels when waking up from a nightmare.
Thank You for what's actual. What's real. This I can handle. This I can do.