The risks of a performative life
This newsletter is dedicated in loving memory to Damien Dion Grivas
11th July 1967 – 5th May 2022
It’s not surprising we do it: perform.
From the moment we arrive, we are being responded to for it. We smiled! (Actually, it may well have been a wind-induced grimace, but our parents are longing for smiles so they’ll take anything remotely approximating one and turn it into gleeful responding).
We get attention! So we do it some more.
And on it goes: we roll over, we sit up, we crawl, we make sounds, we toddle, we get up again after we fall, we say some words, we string them together into sentences, and every milestone is met with approval and rewards, and so we produce more.
Nothing wrong with that, I guess. It is good to grow and develop. But then it takes a tricky turn. We go to school. And, perhaps even before school, with our siblings, but certainly at school alongside our classmates, we start to get compared. And the competition begins, and from thereon in, it kind of never ends.
Unless we stop it for ourselves.
Competition can have a golden aspect: motivation. But I suspect that unless you are made of the stuff that’s made for it, it’s not long before its shadow aspect dominates. Failure. To make the grade. And depending on how your parents respond, and which kind of school you are in, and how much pressure there is on you to be the one that is going to… [fill in the blank: win the race, come first, get the A++] ….it’s a long list of objectives that can be heaped upon skinny shoulders, the weight is heavy, and relentless.
It doesn’t bring out our best behaviour. Unless you are the star pupil, it’s more likely that this experience is producing wounds of one kind or another all along the way. And the way is long: from kindergarten, through junior and high school, ‘varsity and on into the world of work.
And, even if you are the star pupil, it is arguable that is not without its wounding as well. Oh yes, I know. It isn’t possible to be human and be wound-free. But I think there are ways we have constructed our world that are heaping insult to injury in this regard.
Add to this the world of social media – platforms on to which people’s performances are paraded, and it’s easy to see that this is potentially the kind of mounting pressure that can have serious consequences for confidence and self-esteem.
see this all the time in my work. People come to me for a number of reasons. They want to think for themselves. They want to reclaim their independent thinking and learn how to create the conditions that will enable others to do that too. Then they want to get so good at doing just that, for individuals, groups, teams, organisations, that they decide to invest time and resources and their hearts and souls into achieving accreditation. And probably the biggest thing that stands in their way, every step of the way, is whether or not they can relinquish the grip performance and its accompanying anxiety has on them.
Because every one of the ten beautiful, astonishing, life-affirming and filled-with-grace Components of a Thinking Environment will be dismantled with alarming alacrity by performance. By the need to look good, get it right, be approved of: those executioners of self-expression, those assassins of the freedom to be ourselves, just as we are.
Just over three weeks ago, the day before my birthday, I received one of “those” phone calls. The life before/life after kind. My beloved friend had taken his life the night before. I have had the extraordinary gift in my life of knowing so many astonishing and beautiful people, but I would be hard-pressed indeed to find one more lovely than Damien. He was a source of Heavenly light on planet Earth, gorgeous in every way. And talented beyond measure, an artist of striking and exceptional pieces. And the kind of friend everyone should be so lucky to have.
I was sent an unexpected angel in the form of a workshop participant who explained to me, in the days immediately following the news, that suicide happens when a soul and a mind can no longer co-exist. She helped me to understand. For Damien’s soul (luminous soul that it was) could no longer co-exist with the message his mind kept sending: that he was failing to make the grade. I am making peace with life little by little every day now, but it’s a hard-won truce. I want to rail, and wail at this intolerable loss, and that this man should ever have felt that way.
And I want to shout it from the roof-tops: can we just stop it now! Can we stop putting so much pressure on ourselves, on each other, on our children? Can we cherish being human and allow the fulfilment of purpose to unfold slowly and surely, as it will, in due course? Can we trust ourselves, that we are enough, each unique, delightful one of us? Can we let ourselves be?