Yesterday was my last Poetry through Theater workshop with the third graders of Cleveland Metropolitan School District. And as I finished up the class, I closed it as I do each one by asking the students to share something that they’d learned during our time together. One boy at the back of the room raised his hand, and when I called on him, he stood up.
“Well, I never considered myself an actor before,” he said, with an almost philosophical edge in his voice, “but today I learned that drama can be fun!”
“Yes!” I wanted to scream. “That’s exactly it! Drama is fun. And you don’t have to be the best actor or actress in the world to have fun doing it!”
His words may seem simple on the surface, but I believe that they are actually quite profound. Consider this: How often do we let our perceived lack of talent in a certain area keep us from having an enjoyable experience? From trying something new? How many times have you sat on the sidelines watching something that looked like great fun only to be invited to join in and responded, “No thanks. I’m just not good at (fill in the blank.)” It seems that at some point in our life a corollary is drawn between our ability and our enjoyment of things. But I don’t think it has to be this way.
The curious thing is that on my hour-long commute to the school that morning, I’d been pondering a similar question. Out of the blue, I’d found myself reflecting on the activities that I enjoy and asking myself some interesting questions. For example, do I enjoy performing and telling stories for the sheer love of it or because I’m good at it? And how much of a role does talent play when it comes to our ability to enjoy something?
Put in other terms: Why do we enjoy the things we do? Is it purely for the enjoyment that they bring us? Or do we tend to enjoy the things that we are good at — the things that earn us the praise of others?
I’m not sure that I have a definitive answer to these questions (and I welcome your comments on the topic!); however, I do believe that when we are very young we are able to do things for the pure enjoyment of them, caring little about our “talent” so to speak. But as we get slightly older, we are quickly ushered toward the things we are “good at” and away from the things we are “not good at.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it does help us to hone in on our natural abilities; however, at times I fear that it sends the message that we shouldn’t do things for the pure enjoyment of them, but rather only if we have the “talent” or “ability.”
Consider the parent that tells their child after a poor performance in a game, “Well, maybe baseball isn’t your thing.” What they are really communicating is, “Maybe baseball isn’t your thing because you aren’t good at baseball. Perhaps we should find something else for you to do, something that you’ll be good at.”
Certainly this type of statement is thoughtfully intended to protect the child from the heart-break that comes from failure and peer pressures and the like and to lead them toward something in which they will be able to feel the thrill of success and to thrive, because if the child chooses to continue with baseball it may not be an easy road. But what if the parent in the scenario rephrased their question and asked the child, “Do you enjoy baseball? Do you have fun playing? Will it still be fun for you if you continue to make mistakes and if sometimes your team gets frustrated by those mistakes? Would it still be fun if you never hit the game-winning homer?” If the answer is yes, then maybe baseball is their thing, a thing they love for the pure enjoyment of it — even if the natural ability is not there. And if the child’s expectations are reasonable, maybe it will be a character-building activity for them as well.
When we are ushered toward only what we are good at, it can create a culture of fear — fear to try new things, fear of anything that we’re not good at. I’ve seen this time and again from elementary students all the way to adults. We are afraid to step out of the box and do anything that we’re not certain we’re already good at. Whether it’s painting or playing a musical instrument, my fear of not being good may keep me from doing something that I might really enjoy.
As a child, I took dance lessons, and I knew that I was terrible! All I had to do was watch my “good” classmates, and I could tell that I didn’t measure up. My fear of standing out as the “bad dancer” in the class robbed me of any of the enjoyment I may have gotten from actually dancing.
Many years later, while living in Spain, I heard about an African dance class being offered at a local camp. Because of my interest in all things African, I decided to put my fear aside and give it a try. And I’m glad I did! It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. The teacher created an environment where there were no “good dancers” and “bad dancers,” and my classmates, a bunch of twenty-something Spainards who felt as inept at dancing as me, weren’t there to compare themselves but to enjoy a new cultural experience.
I’m not a professional African dancer by any stretch of the imagination, but I have managed to incorporate some of the dance moves I learned into my storytelling work, have taught workshops to little ones and even choreographed a performance at my church to an African song. How was this possible? Because in one critical moment I put aside fear and did something for the sheer enjoyment of it.
And so as my third grade student concluded, you don’t have to be a professional to enjoy something. I don’t think you really even have to be good at it (although that doesn’t hurt!). You just have to be willing to give it a try and put aside your fear. I hope you will. I hope I will too — every chance I get!
In what areas of your life are you allowing fear to hold you back from experiencing enjoyment?