Stage Lights

I looked out over a sea of faces, the hot stage lights shining in my eyes. I was surrounded with the type of unrequited silence in which you can hear the smallest breath, and yet it echoes through the room like thunder. I was on a stage set-up to resemble an early 20th century American home. 

I was dressed in a ratty suit and tie, a costume, looking into the face of a red-headed girl, gussied up in a vintage dress.

She had spoken to me, prompting my line. Her eyes telling me, it’s your turn now. However, I looked at her, not knowing what to say. My mind was completely blank, but I was desperately searching for the words to the line, for any words really. 

Then, as if to completely destroy my pride, a familiar woman, our director, started “whispering” the words to remind me. I say she “whispered,” but she did so quite loudly, as if she wanted people to know for certain that I had forgotten. 

My cheeks burnt red as they often did when I was embarrassed, and I recited my line. Disjointed, stumbling over my words, trying to retain any dignity I still had left.

When the scene was over, it took all of my power not to run off stage and leave entirely.

I was very honored to receive one of the few lead roles in my fine arts club’s rendition of Anne of Green Gables. It was a big step up from the roles I had been bestowed previously. In light of generally having one line of dialogue, having over seventy lines was a vast improvement.

Opening night rolled around faster than intended, as events often do. I hadn’t put in nearly enough effort, I panicked in my mind, even though I had rehearsed my lines every night for weeks. I knew that script forwards and backwards, but all I could think was that I was going to screw it all up and that I would be laughed off the stage.

It felt as if the world was on my shoulders, and it was my responsibility to carry it. 

I got to the venue, a small church in the middle of nowhere, and I got into costume. My heart beat so fast that I thought I was having a heart attack, which made my already shallow breathing more uneven. I thought I might pass out. I prayed to God, not knowing if he even cared about such a small thing, but I prayed nonetheless. 

The show must go on! They say, almost to remind us that regardless of whether we feel qualified or not we have a part to play.

I got off that stage that night and I vowed that I would never let myself give a bad performance again. So, I prepared to perform. 

It’s been over ten years since I took up the role of Matthew Cuthbert, in Anne of Green Gables, and now I public speak nearly every weekend, and I have even been asked to speak for retreats and events. It’s one of the main facets of my job. It’s funny how times change.

However, one thing that has never changed is the fear that I cannot perform as I should, that I might get up and not know what to say. 

I speak in a different sense now. I don’t act as I once did, now I speak about life and religion. The topics are different from what they used to be, but the routine before I go on stage is exactly the same; rapid heartbeat, shallowness of breath, and a prayer to perform well.

Two years ago, during my senior year of college, I got the opportunity to be the speaker for a youth retreat. I said yes without hesitation, and then realized that they didn’t mean they wanted me to speak for one session, which was I was somewhat used to up until that point. Rather they wanted me to speak for all of the sessions. On top of that, I had two-weeks to prepare before this retreat was set to happen. 

I was excited, but I was also extremely nervous. 

This meant writing a series of talks/sermons, that were interlinked. This was something I had never done before. I had previously only worked on isolated presentations; one-off speeches. So, I got to work, writing things in the free time I had from school, and when the two weeks were up I had four sermons written. 

I felt uneasy though.

I hadn’t gotten to prepare them as thoroughly as I would’ve liked, nor did I feel I had enough time to practice them. They were not as ironed out as I would prefer; each talk was still quite rough around the edges. I would also have to leave from my last class of the week and drive directly to the retreat.

There was very little prep time, but I just hoped it would all turn out well. 

The drive up to the retreat, which took just shy of four hours, was not a fun drive. It was just me and my thoughts locked in a vehicular prison. The pervading thought was complete and utter failure. However, I found moments of distraction when I could just zone out and listen to music and podcasts, and before long I had arrived.

I readied the stage, and got my notes prepped, and I was ready for the night. I hoped. 

The students streamed in, the leaders directing the traffic, like they were cattle. The band for the weekend set-up their equipment and did their sound check. The time was coming for me to go on stage, and as the band finished their last song, I was welcomed and introduced to the room. 

I stepped onto a creaky old wooden stage, which made awful noises with every step I took. I opened my mouth and spoke. The words fell out disjointed, like rocks from my mouth, but I kept going because the show must go on

When the time came for me to release the students to their cabins for the night, my heart had completely sunk. I knew that I had failed, and that no matter how bad it went, I still had to do three more sessions.

I went back to my room that night and I couldn’t sleep. 

My bed wasn’t nearly long enough to fit my 6’5” body, so my feet kept banging against the banister. However, worse than that were the unrelenting thoughts that wouldn’t leave my mind, no matter how much I pled with them to do so. 

All I could do was think, recount every word said, gesture done, and “um” spewed. I laid in bed, knowing full well that I had to do better the next morning, but that also meant re-writing the whole session. I got two hours of sleep and went to the nearest Starbucks and wrote until I felt comfortable with the words. 

To make a long story short, with every session I left feeling deflated, wishing I had done a better job, wishing I had performed better. I drove home that Sunday afternoon, running on limited sleep, quite a lot of coffee, and loads of disappointment. 

My heart hurt, and I felt like a failure.

I went into work the next day, as a teacher’s aide, and I graded exams and assignments alongside the professor. I hoped he wouldn’t ask about the weekend. I wished he wouldn’t ask me to reveal details about the retreat, something I had told him about the week prior. I didn’t want to reopen the wound of regret. However, much to my chagrin, he asked, “So, how’d the retreat go?” 

I started to open up about it, hesitantly, but then the dam broke and my words and emotions flowed freely. I told him all about the feeling of failure, inadequacy, and I told him all about how I was not qualified.

I said that I didn’t think I should ever public speak again. He looked at me, his eyes full of compassion and he said, “You need to be more patient with yourself.”

He then started to shuffle through his files. As he looked, he told me how the faculty of our department had had a meeting that morning, as they often do on Mondays.

He said that they had given out an excerpt from a letter written by a Catholic Saint, Francis de Sales, which read, “Know that patience is the only virtue which gives greatest assurance of our reaching perfection, while we must have patience with others, we must it have with ourselves… We have to endure patiently our own imperfections in order to attain perfection; I say ‘endure patiently’ not ‘love’ or ‘embrace’: humility is nurtured through such patience.” [1]

He explained that he and many others amongst the faculty struggled with the same issue as me; they had grace and patience with everyone, except themselves.

He said, “Be gracious to yourself. Cut yourself some slack.” He asked if I believed that I told the truth when I spoke, and whether the message was pure and true.

I nodded, and he said, “Then don’t worry about whether it was the best performance. The performance matters much less than whether you gave these students an honest message, and whether you can walk away knowing you did your very best.” 

I left his office that day, feeling only marginally better. I left knowing that I had done my best and the message was authentic and honest. I also left realizing an important lesson; I can never be good enough for myself. I lack patience and grace for myself, and every little mistake or misstep is exemplified in my mind. 

My best has never been enough for me because I always think I can do better.

For so long I argued that that was a good attitude to have, because it meant I had a sense of drive, but what it really meant was that I couldn’t find contentment. It meant that I would drive myself insane thinking about all of the ways I could have done better if I had just changed this or that. I argued that I was just trying to give the best performance, but therein lies the problem. 

My life had become a performance and I was no longer living, but rather I was acting. Because in my mind I had to be perfect. In the process, I had lost any sense authenticity and honesty. 

The beauty of the quote above, by Francis de Sales, is that the “perfection” he talks about doesn’t mean what we think it means. It’s based off the idea of perfection in which a person or object is “perfect” when it achieves its purpose. 

A broken pencil can still be perfect as long as it writes.

My parents would always tell me when I was kid, “As long as you do your best, we will never be disappointed with you.” If I got a D-plus on a test, they wouldn’t get mad as long as I had given it my best effort.

They would only be mad with me if I didn’t try at all.

I say all of this to express that in an effort to make up for my fear of verbally blanking, or losing my train of thought on stage, I had become an entirely unfair critic of myself. I could give the best speech, and people might come up afterwards praising me, and I would still walk away thinking I didn’t do as well as I could. 

I knew I had given my all on the retreat, but I couldn’t believe that I had done enough.

I will end with the final piece of the story. I went to dinner after leaving my professor’s office. As I ate, chatting with my friend about the crazy amount of homework we each had, another one of my friends came up to the table. Her roommate had been one of the band members from the retreat. She said, “Hey my roommate came back to the apartment yesterday, and she said, ‘Matthew is such a great speaker!’ I just wanted you to know that you did a great job, and what you said made an impact.” 

She left to eat dinner with some other people and I couldn’t help but believe that was God speaking to me. I don’t know if you believe in that sort of thing. However, I do, and in that moment, I really felt like God was reminding me, “Be patient with yourself. As long as you do your best, I will never be disappointed with you.” 

Cut yourself some slack, show yourself grace, and move on. You cannot control every outcome. You cannot control whether your efforts will bear success or failure. All you can do is prepare thoroughly, give your all, and then move on. 

I am still learning that there are times where I need to rest in the knowledge that I have done my best, and in the meanwhile, I must remain patient with myself. There are days where I must remind myself to stop acting and start living.  

To end, J.S. Park writes this in the opening of his book Grace Be With You,

“You can quit replaying those moments in your head. The past is done. Move forward. Have grace with yourself.” [2]

Your performance matters so much less than your honesty and sincerity. Stop acting and start living.

[1]“Francis de Sales,” Oblates of Francis de Sales, accessed December 18, 2018,

I encourage you to look more into Saint Francis de Sales life, work, and writing. He is truly an intriguing man. There are many other websites and books which that will give a good expose of his life and work. 

[2]J.S. Park, Grace Be With You, 4.

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