Behind The Curtain

Thought Experiment Thursday

In the late 90s, Jim Carrey was the most famous actor in the world and also one of the best-paid. But then, about 10 years later, after Yes Man and Bruce Almighty, he sort of, just, went away.

When he shows up today, to a talk show, an interview, or public event, he seems very happy and calm but also quite mysterious and out of touch. He might spot a huge beard, go deep out of nowhere, or tell an odd story.

It feels like something has happened to Jim Carrey, but I think Jim Carrey has happened to us. He’s had a realization that his acting went way beyond the screen:

“As an actor, you play characters, and if you go deep enough into those characters, you realize that your own character is pretty thin to begin with. You have this separation and go, ‘Who's Jim Carrey? Oh, he doesn’t exist, actually.’ And at a certain point, I realized, ‘Hey, wait a second, if it's so easy to lose Jim Carrey, who the hell is Jim Carrey?’”

What Jim has done is let go of being the Wizard of Oz for everyone. He’s now happy to be “the sweaty guy behind the curtain.” Still working. Still performing. But with less attachment to his real-world character.

This behind-the-curtain analogy goes further. The great philosopher and speaker Alan Watts has a wonderful description of it:

“When the curtain goes down at the end of the drama, the hero and the villain step out hand in hand, and the audience applauds both. Because they know that the hero role and the villain role are only masks. And so you see, behind the stage too, there is the green room, where, after the play is over and before it begins, the masks are taken off.”

Everyone you know is wearing these masks. You, me, your family, partner, and friends.

As Jessica Wildfire writes:

We perform different selves for different people. Your coworkers see one side of you. Your friends another. Your lovers still another. You’re all of these, and none of these — all at the same time.

This is actually good news. If you look at it from the right angle, it’s liberating. It helped Jim step past worldly success:

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.”

There are more than psychological consequences from embracing your acting nature. In a study called Counterclockwise, researcher Ellen Langer created an environment in which over-70-year-old men could live and pretend like it was 20 years earlier. As a result, their physical health improved. They became younger. It all comes down to this:

You don’t need an identity to have a life. You can change who you are at a second’s notice. But if you don’t believe it, if you don’t embrace the fragility of who you are, you’ll constantly be exhausted from pretending. Eventually, keeping alive a character we don’t feel like being will get to us. In Watts’s words:

“In reality, under the surface, you are all the actors. Marvelously skilled in playing many parts, and in getting lost in the mazes of your own minds and the entanglements of your own affairs, as if this was the most urgent thing going. But behind the scenes, in the green room, in the very back of your mind and the very depth of your soul, you always have a very tiny, sneaking suspicion that you might not be the you that you think you are.”

As much as this provides food for thought, it’s, most of all, an invitation to practice empathy. Because everyone, everyone is sitting in the green room of their mind. Wondering. Doubting. Waiting. Hoping that you might come along and pull up the curtain. Hoping someone will see who they really are.

So remember: Everybody’s acting. And there’s always more than what you see.


About Thought Experiment Thursday: Einstein said we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking that created them. Science estimates we have about 35 thoughts per minute. That’s a lot of chances to change our thinking. So on Thursdays, that’s what we’ll practice.

A question opens the mind. A statement closes it. Let’s keep ours wide open.

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