What is it with parents of kids and dogs? We LOVE showing off our little people or pups and whatever new skill, behavior or trick they’ve learned. We want the world to see how brilliant and funny and cute little Johnny or Jake is when it’s just us at home. Invariably, the little ones disappoint. They freeze up and look at you as if they have no idea what you’re talking about. You know, that same thing they do 300 times in a row at home, way past the point of cute? Yeah, that thing.
When my little guy was younger and I would fall prey to this temptation to ask him to perform in public for my amusement, he hardly ever complied. Really, nearly never. At some point, I stopped asking. I actually thought to myself, he is not a clapping monkey. You know them? My parents have a hideously old, but unfortunately still functional model of this toy. Turn it on, the monkey starts his performance of what is meant to be a joyful song accentuated by clanging cymbals. Never mind that it could be the soundtrack to my worst nightmare. And with his missing fur and glassy eyes. Ugh. I just can’t.
But the monkey has this going for him: he is obedient and faithful and always delivers. Turn him on—he plays. Turn him off—he stops. And because of that he is, to me, the universal symbol of performance on command. Hence, my son is not a clapping monkey. It was such a helpful reminder to restrain myself and let Abe be the individual he is meant to be and choose when and where he shows off his mad skills.
Just recently, though, I have come to understand how much I struggle to give myself the same honor. Because I want you to like me. I want you to think I’m smart and talented and, well, worthy. My brain knows this is dumb. Come on, I’m 45 years old (holy cow how’d that happen?!) and still wrestling with this? Silly.
So I want to quit it already. I want to not care whether you, People Of The World, respond kindly or at all to what I put out there. But I’m not there yet. So I spent some time meditating on this recently, seeking insight. And you know the only thought that came to me was in the form of a memory. Suddenly I was a little girl again, singing “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha for a recital. As I prepared to step onto stage to take my place, resplendent in my new velvet dress, white lace ankle socks, patent leather shoes and freshly coiffed hair, I was given these instructions:
Be careful to not trip on those cords by the piano. That guy over there will lower the mic for you. Stand up straight, smile, and give it your best. You nailed it in rehearsal. Do it again, just like that. And whatever you do, don’t lock up your knees. Relax and have fun.
Backstage, that all made sense. And she’s right, I did nail it in rehearsal. Belted that bad boy out like it was my job. I sounded good and was proud of it.
I stepped onto that stage and received the warm smile from my teacher sitting at the piano ready to accompany me, but then turned to the crowd and every ounce of courage and confidence leaked out of me. The piano startled me out of a frozen state and sound squeaked out of my mouth, meek and void of emotion. Barely audible, really. Certainly not the full-bodied voice I knew was in there. And, goodness. All those people. Looking at me with such anticipation. And then concern. And then disappointment. I wanted to run away and act like it never happened. Then my dad shifted in his seat and caught my attention. He was glowing at me. Proud and sure and loving. And as I locked into him, some of the strength in my voice returned. Other faces blurred a bit. I ended on a high note … to dream the im-possible dreeaaaam!
That was it. It made sense immediately. When I sang for strangers, the expectation to perform gripped me like a noose. When I sang for my Daddy, I enjoyed using the talents that we both knew were inside me. Choose the right audience, and I am free to play. Choose wrongly, and I perform on command, sometimes poorly. So I intend to more carefully decide who gets to speak into my value. Because I am not a clapping monkey. Neither are you.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Joel Kramer