“Learning to Swim in Discomfort” March 11, 2018 with Shanna Jones, Rhonda Brown & Jack Gaede
It is important to know that fear will never go away so I might as well use it as a compass to direct me to where I need to go.
Click here to start at the sermon.
My very first memory of performing was when I was 5. My mother had volunteered me to sing a solo in front of the entire congregation of our Mormon church. She was a bit of a stage mom. I remember her coaching me for weeks by the piano. To this day I remember every word of the song. The Sunday of my big performance finally came. I stood at the podium on a giant step stool, the music started, the moment for me to start singing came and went. I was frozen as I looked over the congregation of expectant faces and then I just sobbed. My mom ran to the podium put her arm around me and sang the song while I cried. This was the beginning of my long battle with stage fright. My mother continued to push me out into the spotlight, sometimes I would deliver, sometimes I would stand there and cry.
When I was 9 she made me audition for a community production of Oliver. True to form, I got up to audition, the music started and I stood there and cried. Fortunately they needed kids so I got the gig. Then something incredible happened. As we started to rehearse the show I stopped feeling scared. In rehearsals everyone worked together, sang together, made mistakes together, I wasn’t alone on a stage, and not only that I wasn’t even me. I was a little pickpocket boy who ran around with the toughest gang in London. There was total freedom in that. As I lost myself in my character I also lost my stage fright. Years went by and I kept auditioning. Theatre was my love, my passion, my safe safe space. I went to college, got a performance degree, and spent the next 8 years working as a professional actor.
Then something changed, something snapped. In 2014 I was cast in a production of Santaland Diaries at Kansas City Rep Theatre. As we began performing in front of audiences I started to feel horrible panic. I would get nauseous, break out in cold sweats, get tunnel vision – I was having anxiety attacks. As it got worse the feeling began to follow me throughout the day. I didn’t understand, theatre was my safe space, my job, my life’s work, my calling. The stage fright from my youth was back and worse than I had ever experienced. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t dare tell anyone at work. Who wants to hire an actor who has developed a major anxiety disorder around performing. It finally reached a point where I was considering if I needed to quit the business and find a different profession.
Then I read an incredible book call the War of Art. It’s written by a man who as battled his whole life as a writer with anxiety and depression. In the book he talks about resistance. There is the power of creation and then there is the equal and opposite power of resistance. It is there to stop us whenever we try to do something to better ourselves or our communities or our world, when we try to change for the better or create anything of any value. He wrote that resistance is that dark crippling force that points us to exactly what we need to do. Essentially our fear is a compass, follow your fear and you will find you purpose, your power, your life’s greatest work. I knew he was right. So I found a therapist.
She taught me breath exercises, meditation techniques, and the greatest tool of all, love. She suggested acknowledging the fear but to then focus on the love where ever I could find it—love for my cast mates, love for the play, love for the audience. Connecting to love and using that power helped me move through the fear. I almost let fear take away my life’s greatest joy. I still have stage fright and huge panic attacks, but I refuse to let that fear take away what makes my life beautiful. I think it is important to know that fear will never go away so I might as well use it as a compass to direct me to where I need to go.
In March of 2015 I found myself marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama with thousands of people including my husband and 84-year-old father-in-law who are both African American. It was an amazing and surreal experience and as I was walking I reflected on how I arrived in this place. It all started with a decision a several years earlier to take a risk. After spending two years caring for my brother-in-law who passed away from kidney cancer, I was spent and realized I needed to find a spiritual home to help me through my grief. I also wanted to find a place to grow my beliefs in the worth and dignity of everyone.
A good friend of mine and I agreed we should go to the Unitarian Church and see what they have to offer. This may seem like an easy thing to do, but I had been to the UU church several years earlier and wasn’t sure I’d feel welcome. I took a leap of faith, got out of my comfortable chair, moved into my courage zone and started attending services. I also brought a few allies with me including my husband and my friend who were also willing to take a risk, which made it easier for me. As your church is doing now, our congregation decided to participate in the Beloved Conversations Workshop. I not only attended but also facilitated the 8 week workshop. Once I started to work with other UU’s on areas of Racial Justice, I was hooked. It was energizing to be in a space with people who were passionate about creating a better world.
As I became more involved in Beloved Conversations and racial justice activities, I started to learn about other programs that were offered by the UUA. I came across the Living Legacy Pilgrimage a program designed to deepen UU’s understanding of the civil rights movement, which was held in Birmingham, Alabama in March of 2015. Even though I only knew one person who was attending the pilgrimage, I told my husband we were going (and of course he did the right thing and agreed) and I signed us both up. The program included the walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery and we were both very excited about participating. A few weeks later my 84 year-old father in law came to visit and we told him about our trip. I was amazed when he asked us in a quiet but firm voice: “Can I go with you?” I thought he was kidding, but he was very serious.
You see he was born in Mississippi in the 1930’s and spent his youth in the South. He wanted to see the area of his birth in a different way. He wanted to walk where so many others sacrificed their bodies to fight for justice. We found a way to include my father in law on the bridge walk and the entire trip was magical. My husband had to drive 3 hours to pick up my father in law so that he could take the flight to Birmingham with us. During the drive my husband was astounded as my father in law shared story after story about his life growing up in the south which he had never done before. He talked the entire 3 hours. Some of the stories were uncomfortable and painful and others were joyful and my husband listened with love, care and patience.
Once we arrived in Selma I was worried that my father in law would not be able to make it on the 3 mile walk because he had a problem with his knees and needed a cane. He assured me he would be fine and he was right. Once we started walking across the bridge my father in law took off and was walking like a young man. I actually had run to catch up with him and get him to slow down so that we could meet up with other UU’s who were marching. My heart was full as I joyfully watched my husband and his father walk together across the bridge. All three of us got off that comfortable chair and shared an unbelievable journey. That trip taught me that having the willingness to step into my courage zone provided me the opportunity for tremendous spiritual growth in ways I could never have imagined.
It was 2015, and I had participated in numerous marches to protest the killing of unarmed people of color. The circumstances changed, but the violence and injustice remained the same. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. All of them impacted me. They enraged me; they jolted me out of complacency and inspired me to leave my comfort zone. But they also felt like a sort of abstraction. These deaths were happening, but they were happening somewhere else. And I kept attending marches and vigils and rallies, but they were beginning to feel fruitless and ineffectual. What good were these marches? Were they making a difference?
I attended a few discussions about racial justice activism at my home congregation in Minneapolis, but I was beginning to feel like we would never move past talk. What could we do? What could I do? And then November came, and the police in my neighborhood shot and killed Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man. It was no longer an abstraction. He was my neighbor. The shooting took place two miles from my house. And now I was asked to step into my courage zone.
A group of people gathered at the police precinct to demand answers and began a 17-day occupation. And remember this took place in November…in Minneapolis. This was a dedicated group of people. And every day I had a choice to make. I could choose to drive, bike, or bus past the occupation while telling myself, “Look, someone else is there. I don’t need to go.” Or maybe I would say something like: This isn’t my concern. I didn’t know Jamar. I don’t even know all the “facts.” But instead I made a decision…I started to show up.
On the first day, I felt so many things. I felt overwhelmed, I felt scared, I felt useless, I felt out of place. And on that day, I bore witness to an incredible amount of pain, and it was not easy. Nor was it always clean, tidy, and orderly. But how often is grief orderly? I asked myself, How would I react if my cousin had been shot in the street? This was a pain that I could not fix. However, it was pain that I could have just walked away from; that would have been easier. But instead I stood there, adding my body to the other bodies who had congregated to call for police reform, accountability, and transparency.
The next day, the occupiers held a healing vigil where people made art, wrote poems, sang songs, and shared stories. As the days progressed, the community kept growing and the weather got colder. People from all over the city started to drop off warm clothing, sleeping bags, firewood, fire pits, hand warmers, and foot warmers. People from various faith communities began to take turns providing a hot meal to keep the occupiers warm and well-fed. I made a commitment to check in at the occupation every other day—sometimes staying for 30 minutes, sometimes staying for multiple hours. And there were many times that I felt useless and asked myself, “Is this working? Are we going to get our demands met? Does my presence here matter?” But I kept on coming, and I kept talking to more and more people. I started to build a pretty deep connection to some of the other “regulars.”
We were building a sense of solidarity among a very diverse group of people across multiple identities: age, race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and political affiliation. Eleven days into the occupation, it was Thanksgiving. The occupiers cooked and hosted an outdoor Thanksgiving meal that was truly open and welcome to all. We were building a sense of community, and it was beautiful.
In the early morning hours on the seventeenth day of the occupation, the numbers had dwindled enough so that the police were able to end the occupation without much fanfare and with minimal arrests. Most of the demands of the occupation had not been met, so it would have been easy to think that the occupation had been a failure. But as I looked back on my experience there, I realized two things. First of all, in 13 years of living in that neighborhood I had never met as many of my neighbors than I did in those 17 days. And secondly, I learned deeply about the importance of stepping into my courage zone.