“A grown man reacting like this? What are you going to do, cry?”
His consciousness was becoming focused as it careened off the neural pathways on its way to activating the part of his brain where options were binary: fight or flight. It was not a direct path, however. His psyche made an apparently mandatory stop along the way to trigger the cluster of neurons that apportion shame and blame. It was hard to believe there was an evolutionary benefit to having shame and blame sensors in the neural pathways but they were there.
The sweat – which, if he survived, he knew he would later describe as “flop sweat” – was spreading across his flushed face and he could feel his body rapidly heat up. His vision narrowed to exclude almost all but the botched effect sitting before him on the table. He had to physically lift his head to see the audience and then lower his head to again look at the prop.
What could he do? He could fight – think of a way to get himself out of the botched effect, hope the audience indulged his mortal failing and move on. Or he could take flight – give into the panic and embarrassment and walk briskly from the small stage.
At the moment, however, he was unable to make a decision.
He was frozen on stage, looking at the table and the visible evidence of his failure to sufficiently practice a new effect before adding it to his routine. The shame and blame sensors were firing even if all other parts of the brain were quiet.
He was amazed that he could have these feelings of panic and indecision and shame at this point in his career, his life. He was no kid, not even a young middle-aged performer. He had been around for quite a while and performed audiences larger than this, on stages far nicer and for more money. So why was he on the verge of tears?
Time was stopped, it seemed. Perhaps it was the same sensation experienced by the deer caught in the headlights or the gazelle being stalked. This wasn’t life or death. There wouldn’t be a scar or anything more than a good, humiliating war story that he could to choose to tell.
But tears? Why would he cry about this? Why would tears be a response to a public failure of his own making? Wouldn’t tears just add to the shame and embarrassment? Was that part of the evolutionary plan – make the humiliating event thoroughly and irretrievably a moment of failure?
The audience was looking at him but apparently without judgment. Perhaps they had not seen his failure or thought it was part of the routine? They would soon realize it was a failure that would cut short his performance. Then the faces would reflect a different attitude, he thought. That’s when the judgment will kick in and his shame, flushing, sweat and inability to calmly fix things would become obvious. They would see that he was a fraud – not a good performer, worthy of their attention and enthusiasm.
He could survive this if he just had to deal with the flop-sweat, the feeling of embarrassment and a momentary lapse in what had been a smoothly running routine. All of that could be explained and laughed about but if he couldn’t avoid crying, all was lost.
He felt his consciousness move towards one of the two impulses. His battle would focus solely on not crying. He took a breath, smiled, stepped forward and took another breath.
“For my next trick . . .” he offered with a forced smile and a humbled tone.