Have you ever taken a deep breath and stepped out on a stage of some sort to perform? Time slows down. Sounds quiet down and you can actually hear the thudding of your heart. And then, just as suddenly, as your performance starts, your acute sense of self-consciousness is forced to recede. Time speeds back up and the audio gets turned up again. You are left with a hallucination-like memory of that moment of transition. This experience, which I call the “trigger moment” is at the heart of the allegory of the stage.
Movie directors didn’t make up this subjective feeling. They copied something very real with the slow-motion camera and the sound mixer. Trigger moments are such powerful experiences that we are tempted to weave our life stories around them. Shakespeare’s all the world’s a stage bit from As You Like It is of course the most famous take on the idea.
I consider it more an allegory than a metaphor, but let’s not quibble. Think of it as a metaphor if you like.
In school and college, I used to get on the stage quite a bit to perform — debates, public-speaking contests, quizzes, and yes, theater. Not all performances have a hallucinatory trigger moment between normal-mind and stage mind. If you have just had a few drinks, and are fooling around to entertain friends, you won’t experience this transition. But what my literal stage experiences did was sensitize me to the trigger-moment feeling. Once you learn to recognize it, you realize that plenty of life experiences have the same subjective signature. Submitting a homework assignment, releasing a product, jumping off the high board, pushing a button to start a chemistry experiment, pulling a trigger, hitting “publish” to release a blog post into the wild. Even hitting “send” in your email editor. At the other end of the spectrum, on large collective scales, you get the first wave of soldiers landing on a beach on D-day, or the moment in medieval battles when two opposed armies begin to charge at each other. Or thousands of people holding their breath as someone goes 3, 2, 1, we have ignition.
What all these trigger-moment experiences have in common is that they represent thresholds beyond which you are no longer in control of the consequences of your actions. Something you are creating goes from being protected by you (and your delusions) to facing the forces of the wild world. Every time a comic steps on stage, he is about to either bomb or kill, putting his theory of life to the test. Movie script writers design entire stories around such moments. There are plenty of overused and cliched lines to choose from (“This is it” or “So it begins” or most dramatically, “my whole life has been building up to this moment”).
The moments themselves are infrequent and short-lived, but there is no mistaking the transition, or the feeling of being “on stage” on the other side. You know whether you are performing, or on the sidelines, waiting. There is truth underlying the angsty teenager’s sense of anticipation, the feeling that something significant hasn’t yet happened, that life has not yet begun. You haven’t started living until you experience and survive your first powerful “stepping on stage” moment. The bitter, depressed middle-aged adult who tells the 18-year old that “real life isn’t like the movies” is actually wrong. He has merely never dared to step onto a significant stage himself, so he doesn’t know that such powerful crossing-the-threshold moments are possible. That every life can be the Hero’s journey.
Sure, the rather crude and vulgar yearnings of teenagers (they all want to be rock stars, sports stars or novelists) are mostly unlikely to be fulfilled. But whether your life feels like it is playing out as a series of on-stage episodes doesn’t depend on whether you head towards the more obvious stages. It depends entirely on whether you have the mental toughness to recognize and not shy away from big trigger moments. This mental toughness is what allows you to say “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” You accept the worst that can happen and step on stage anyway. The exhilaration that can follow is not the exhilaration of having impressed an audience. It is the exhilaration of having cheated death one more time.
The allegory of the stage is the story of your life told around the moments when you faced death, and charged ahead anyway.
But life is more than a series of step-on-stage/step-off vignettes; there is a narrative logic to the whole thing. Each trigger moment prepares you for larger trigger moments. Each time you shy away from a trigger moment, you become weaker. There is a virtuous cycle of increasingly difficult trigger moments, and if you can get through them all, you are ready for the biggest trigger moment of all: the jump into eternal oblivion. Everybody dies. Not everybody can make it an intentional act of stepping onto a pitch-black stage.
There is also a vicious cycle of increasing existential stage fright. Do that enough, and you will find yourself permanently in the darkness, life having passed you by. As you might expect, the universe has a sense of humor. You can only experience “living to the fullest” if you are able to get through death-like trigger moments. Shy away from these death-like moments, and your life will actually feel like living death.
Curiously though, in this allegory of the stage, it isn’t other people who are spectators of your life. Everybody is either on the stage or waiting backstage for their moment. What’s out there is the universe itself, random, indifferent to your strutting. That’s what separates teenagers from adults: the realization that other people are not your audience.