I posted eight images for my first TBT (Throwback Thursday): a weekly social media ritual during which users “share” photos from the past. This internet holiday provides a thin veil for the vain, arbitrary, impulse to post any old pic of one’s own face. It’s popular. But I myself had never before indulged in sharing my younger visage with all of my “friends.” Why now? And why eight?
Could it be the melancholy I was feeling, having just gotten some devastating news? The fact that it was mid April and still so so cold? The Spring holidays inspiring themes of death, memory, and rebirth? Maybe all of the above...but there was something more: an inextricable pang of grief and an unusually heightened desire for connection.
The photos I posted were from a professional production of Romeo and Juliet in which I played Romeo. I accompanied the pics with this message:“Before my dream to be a therapist came true, this one did.” I added the hashtags: #TBT, #Romeo, #HappyBdayShakespeare (It was his birthday after all, I had at least that warrant for this bit of narcissism). It was days before I realized the production took place that very week, twelve years earlier. And that my father had passed away, abruptly, shockingly, exactly one year before that.
Looking again at the pictures I had chosen to share, I saw beyond their superficial finish; behind the sparkle of my twenty four year old self, costumed as the best romantic leading man ever written. Inside my eyes in each photo was an urgent need to express extreme love, longing, and the brazenness to dream. I could also trace expansive feelings of grief. The shock and horror of abrupt loss.
These emotional memories live in my body. So too do memories of a creative act of survival and a survivor’s act of creativity.
In posting the pics I suppose I wanted my friends (and friends”) to know that creativity is survival. A way for us to move forward without having to forget our past. Through the act of creating we transform loss, passion, and need into art. And by sharing our art we might access similar emotions in the bodies of other people; wake them into life; inspire, and encourage them to use their own pain to create their own art. Such sharing is how we help each other to face life.
When my father died without warning in 2001, I was kicked out of a self-involved stupor and roused into perspective. As a young actor in New York, struggling to find my footing, it was too easy to waste time fixating, neurotically, on meaningless dead ends: e.g. How do I break into commercials? Why is so-and-so on Broadway and not me? Why am I the only actor in the history of actors who hasn’t appeared on Law and Order?! But my father’s passing connected me instantly and deeply to the reason I wanted to act in the first place. I wanted to share the experience of my challenged, flawed, and impassioned, existence with other people. In the form of a story they would all understand.
I made a deal with my late father: I would move on to another career if need be (I had always wanted to be a therapist) if I had the chance to play Romeo. If only once! One year later I got the job. And I kept his picture in the room I was staying for the run of the show.
The fact that I was fired up to portray a hot blooded Shakespearean character at that time is likely more than a coincidence. A newstudy called ‘William Shakespeare as Psychotherapist’ suggests that Shakespeare’s plays, which often feature intensely passionate, flawed, self reflective, characters, might have helped his audiences access their own unconscious--in the way Sigmund Freud would do years later.
Also another recent study entitled, ‘How Shakespeare Tempests the Brain’ suggests that Shakespeare may have been an early neuroscientist. The paper discusses how his heightened language continues to help actors and audiences get his meaning on several levels at once. I must have had a sense that portraying Romeo would allow me direct access to my severe heartache through those wonderful words, and also afford me the ability to connect intimately with an audience.
To this day feelings of grief for my father are entangled with memories of connecting to other people via creativity. Perhaps this explains my impulse to “throwback” all of those photos on that cold, April, Thursday.
Have I just composed a flowery excuse for posting some pictures of myself? Probably. But just as Shakespeare’s plays have always proven, we benefit from creatively sharing with one another our dreams, joys, pain, loss, imperfections, and self reflections.
Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW