Back about 21 years ago, I fancied myself quite the budding actor. I like comedy well enough, and loved dramas, but my real passion was improv. My first improv teacher was Brigid Rice, and I remember how tough she was on me when my sense of right and wrong got in the way of a good acting moment. During a rehearsal break one evening, I was taking swigs of root beer and swishing it around the inside of my mouth before I swallowed it. She came up to me, smiles, and held out her hand as if to tempt me to spit the root beer into it. I didn't do it; it seemed gross, and rude, and inappropriate, and all sorts of other things. Brigid took me to task for the next few months, questioning my ability to think freely and respond in the moment.
Fast forward three years, and she and I were in a play together. During a break in one of the rehearsals, I was taking a swig of water and swishing it around . . . you know the rest. And this time, with no hesitation, I spit it out into her hand, all over her clothes, and onto the stage and floor. People completely freaked out - but not Brigid, and not me. She had taught me a valuable lesson : that our "internal editors", while useful in some situations (like when they prevent us from farting or saying "Jesus f'ing Christ!" in church, for example), often hinder us in ways that prevent us from experiencing the world more fully.
Here's an example. Last night, the boys and I were playing in the bedroom. As our games often do, this one started with a rambunctious sock war and turned into something involving Heaven and Hell (seems to be the topic of the year in our house.) In this particular game, Kai was portraying a superhero in a wheelchair who was saving me from the evil demon Kade. Sadly, Kade won out, and Kai began ascending to Heaven. But when he got there, "God" (Kai) told him that people in wheelchairs weren't allowed in Heaven! The demon (Kade) then piped in and told him that it was okay, people in wheelchairs were supposed to go to Hell anyway.
The second it happened I laughed so hard I almost peed myself, and I didn't stop laughing for a good five minutes.
"Why Jeff," you may say, "that's horrible." Really? Ask yourself why. Were they mocking people in wheelchairs? No. Were they making fun of people that are different from them? No. The wheelchair guy was the hero of the story, after all. Do they really think that people in wheelchairs should all go to Hell? Of course not. And did I laugh because I simply love jokes in which people in wheelchairs get made fun of? No.
I laughed because it was a wonderful example of how free these kids are. Kai the Wheelchair Superhero was honest, and true, and brave, but in the battle of good vs evil someone has to win and someone has to lose, and it was Kai's turn. They thought, they acted, they used knowledge about Heaven and Hell and demons and fighting and abilities and justice. They did it with grace, and humor, and pleasure. The wheelchair was completely incidental to the play that was unfolding before my very eyes.
No one told them what was okay and not okay, good or bad, on or off limits. They started with a blank palette, and added the colors that they wanted to, in strokes and combinations that I never could have conceived of. They did not view their play through my eyes, but through their own - through a lens unfettered by years of editing their thoughts before they got a chance to voice them. They saw the world through the eyes of a child - not innocent and vulnerable, but playful and in full consideration of the creation of possibilities. They were free to let their minds go wherever they would. No, that's saying it wrong because it implies that they consciously relaxed their minds. Let me phrase it this way: their minds were free to go wherever they desired, and wherever they could. No sense of "this is inappropriate", or "Daddy might think I'm making fun of people in wheelchairs" - - no internal editor. THIS is what we're striving for, I think. I have little control of what type of people my kids will turn out to be, but I do hope that they continue to grow up able to define what inappropriate is for them. I hope they can develop their own sense of right and wrong (to a degree, of course, but I'm pretty confident they're not going to be murderers or thieves), good and bad, okay and not okay. In short, I want them to be free to explore their boundaries now, where and when it is safe, so that they can define and develop their own boundaries as they venture out into their lives.
21 years ago, I had to learn how to turn off my internal editor. I am hopeful that my kids will grow learning how to sometimes turn it on instead of sometimes turn it off.