The Netflix documentary “Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond,” chronicles Jim Carrey’s role as Andy Kaufman in “Man on the Moon” where Carrey stayed in character as Andy on and off the set. He wore the clothes, did the voice, held the attitude. In short, he was the biggest, weirdest, most antagonistic comic genius he could be. Until the producers told him to stop.
Turns out you can’t live like that for long. You can’t push the boundaries of reality because it freaks people out. People like a delineation of sorts. They want to know they are talking to “you” when that talk to you. No one wants to wander into a scene from “The Shining” unprepared.
That’s why Andy Kaufman made so many people uncomfortable. He was Latka from “Taxi.” He was Tony Clifton. He was a professional wrestler. He was a comic who never told jokes. He lip-synced instead and read poetry. And he never broke character. It was crazy. And people never knew what to make of him. Because who was he? Who was the real “him” in there? That’s all anybody ever wants to know. Who is the real you? It’s the existential dilemma concentrated down to one single question. It is the reason we try to read the stars and our fortunes and our family tree. We want to see the origins of things. We want to know what that golden shining self-actualized version of us really looks like. And so, it bothers us when we can’t pinpoint the real version in others.
But what would it be like to give up a sense of that crucial version of yourself? How freeing would it be to just tip-toe your way down the road of life with curiosity – to look rather than bushwhack your way to some pre-determined goal? What if we really could be whoever we wanted to be and that could be a gain, rather than loss, to the net self?
This is where I see kids shine. They are cowboys in tiaras. They ride in on imaginary dinosaurs and demand you surrender all the Oreos. They try ballet for a year and then switch to tae kwon do. They talk to themselves all the time, narrating the story of their lives. In their reality, Gruffalos exist to do their bidding. Today they are princesses and tomorrow they are soldiers. It’s a weird world they live in, but it sounds awfully interesting.
As parents, we talk often of helping our kids discover their true selves. We want to encourage them to explore all these identities. We praise their creativity. We laugh at their quirks. We let them paint their toenails blue and make salt crystals in the bath tub and try out for track.
But what we are really after, more often than not, is a winnowing down to the real person underneath. Sure, we want them to explore and we will be okay with whatever tiara-wearing cowboy they settle on. But we do want them to settle. We want them to pick. As a teenager, my hair color followed the rainbow spectrum of colors. But eventually I settled in to one I liked and have rarely varied since. At some point the time for experimenting must come to an end.
Why do we believe we must come to a concrete definition? Aren’t we always in flux? The me that was a high school thespian is not the me that is now a mother and a writer, but the pieces of that theatricality still exist. Sure, it might make people uncomfortable to see me recite some “double double toil and trouble” to my kids in the grocery line, but who cares? Why must we settle in to the roles others pick for us just to make them content?
Also, the wife me vs. the daughter me vs. the sister me vs. the me in 20 years will all still be me. One is not more real than any other. And if it is a case of impermanence, then why not experiment? Why not see what happens when you leave off the expectations for a day?
Andy Kaufman once said, “What's real? What's not? That's what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality.”
I think this is what children do. They test our perception of reality. They stretch and bend it and perhaps we should join than rather than assume it should be the other way around. What would be so terrible in letting loose a little more of ourselves on the world?