Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Cringe Exercise

I'm just finishing my first quarter of screenwriting studies at U.C.L.A.  And one of the most remarkable moments in the quarter occurred in the very first week.

One of the directors of our program, a great professor named Hal Ackerman, had us all introduce ourselves to one another. And not just names and addresses, but what did you do before, what brought you here.  A mini-version of what we'd call in the Jesuits a "vocation story".

Then, when we were done, he said this:  "So, we've all shown each other some of the best parts of ourselves.  The public identity.  Now, what I'd like you to do is take out a piece of paper and write a list of everything about your past that makes you cringe.

More specifically, everything you've ever done that makes you feel embarrassed or ashamed.

Write them all down.  And then, we'll share them."

It was that last sentence that got me.  "Share them?"  Hello, we all just met, and we're each going to divulge the things in our past that we really feel bad about?

He was serious.  We had about 15 minutes to write, and then one by one, we read our cringe lists.

Forget cringe. My image was 100% Macaulay Culkin:

And let me tell you, people did not hold back.  In my group of 8, pretty much everything that you could do wrong, one or more of us had done.  The regrets, the embarrassment hung like fruit.

Hal finished the exercise with this question: "Now that you've seen some of the darker parts of one another, is there anyone in the room that you feel like you really can't work with?"

In fact, the exact opposite was true.  Hearing people's mistakes and sadnesses only made us care about them more.  And not in a pitying sort of way, either.  It was like that great image of C.S. Lewis of being torn open and peeled away until all that's left is the naked self. That self is vulnerable and fragile, but also liberated and beautiful.

There is that paradox in Advent of God coming to us in the darkness, wanting to be in the very parts of ourselves that feel like the biggest betrayals of our faith, our compassion, our humanity.  These are the parts we hide away, expect (or perhaps wish) could be rejected.   But seeing it all, God -- like a friend or a lover -- only cares for us more.


kmbrco said...

What a great exercise. I find that people, many people, are yearning to reveal themselves. They just need the opportunity, and to be brave enough to do it. Even working in retail, I'm amazed sometimes what people are willing to share (sometimes too much!), but there are days when I've actually walked a customer to their car, handed them a tissue, and given them a hug before they've gone on their way.

There's a common thread in our beings. When we make a connection, no matter how minor, it can shift your perspective. Change your outlook. Improve your day.

Sounds hokey, I know. But I can be pretty hokey. And I don't mind sharing that.

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

Sounds great to me!