The Egg Joke

February 26th, 2011

So there’s a great old joke (I think Woody Allen tells it, among other people).  It goes something like this: 

“My brother thinks he’s a chicken.”

“Why don’t you get him some therapy?”

“I would, but we need the eggs.”

Like most good jokes, it’s not just funny in and of itself, but stands for something much bigger: it’s a metaphor for all the craziness we cling to because we think it’s beneficial. It’s something you hear comedy writers talk about: “What if I go into therapy to fix my depression and anxiety and it turns out they’re exactly the traits that make me funny?”   Or artists:  “Would Van Gogh have been a great painter if he hadn’t been delusional?”  Or even academics: “My OCD allows me to do insanely meticulous research.”

I’ve been thinking about this because I recently had my first piece of theatre publicly performed.  And I was in agony during the performance.  I wanted to just sit back and bask in the joy of hearing my words spoken by a very talented actress–but I couldn’t relax.  I spent the entire time trying to gauge the audience’s reactions.  Were they laughing at the funny stuff?  Were they moved by the sad parts?  Were they listening or fidgeting?  Did they like the other pieces more than mine?  Did they like mine at all?

When the applause came, I decided it was weaker than it had been the rest of the night.  I went to the after-party in tears.  I was a failure.

The anxiety and depression stuck with me for the next day or two.  I couldn’t shake the feeling I had failed everyone involved in the project.  And then the reviews came out.  A couple didn’t mention me, which was fine.  At least no one was saying I was the weakest link.  But the third one I read singled my piece out.  As being one of the best.

The relief was overwhelming.  But it was relief.  Not joy, not pleasure, not a feeling of confidence.  Just relief that I hadn’t messed up completely.  A friend said, “Now you can relax.”

But here’s the thing: can I?

Well, no, I can’t or I wouldn’t be me.

The more interesting question is: should I?  Should I stop worrying about whether I’m a successful writer or not and just enjoy getting to write at all?  Should I stop fretting about bad reviews or low sales?  Should I stop envying other people’s success and wishing I could do better?  All these things would make me happier.  But deep down, I feel like maybe all the anxiety and terror and insecurity push me to keep working harder and even maybe to work better.  I don’t know that they do.  I just feel like there’s a connection there.  And at my age, I’m too used to letting those negative emotions keep me focused.  I don’t know what I’d do without them.  Maybe I’d drift into happy indolence and good-natured sloth.

In other words: maybe I need the eggs.

Pass the Cholula.

  • My brother has none of those traits and he is a star in his field. Top 3% in the world, according to one of his colleagues who accosted me. He’s nothing but happy all the time about his work and interested in the next thing he’s going to work on.

    I think there is a lot of mythology that all the stress is what keeps top performers performing. “Pressure makes diamonds” and all of that. I have started, slowly, to believe that it might be wrong. Really wrong. And wrong-headed on top of it.

    Not that I am against getting the fresh eggs. I love getting those.

  • Claire says:

    Oh, I think you can succeed without making yourself crazy. I just don’t know if I can. But I freely admit it may be superstitious thinking.

  • Claudia Reilly says:

    You are my husband only you don’t have hair on your back.

    Robert experiences two emotions: Terror and relief. I keep saying to him, “When something goes GREAT all you feel if relief. You don’t experience JOY.” His attitude is, “If I experienced joy, lightning would strike me dead.”

    But I think he actually doesn’t FEEL joy. He isn’t trying to ward off damnation. He genuinely expects things to go wrong and when things go not just right but GREAT he thinks, “Next time things will go WRONG so why get excited about this minor good thing?”

    I’m always fascinated by your reactions to life and my husband’s reactions. I go into wildly delusional states if ANYTHING REMOTELY GOOD happens to me. The song in “West Side Story” that is called TONIGHT is my theme song: Something great is…going to happen. And then it doesn’t.

    I love you folks who don’t understand you are the MERMAID GODS. I love watching the way you folks don’t know how happy you are, how the rest of us are hoping the mermaids will sing to us while you think, along with J Alfred Prufrock: “I do not think that they will sing to me.” And then they sing to you (and to TS Eliot). Sigh. But of course you know they won’t sing to you AGAIN.

  • Claire says:

    The mermaids totally sing to you, Claudia! And you can have the capacity actually to enjoy their song. But you’re right: I’m like Robert.

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