Green Shirt Studio

Why is Desire a Dirty Word?


I found out this week that one of my students is currently in the running for NASA’s astronaut training program. To me, this is the coolest thing ever. I’ve always been obsessed with space travel and astronomy, and by “always,” I mean since I was a little kid.

I have always found myself daydreaming about traveling to another planet and I have a recurring dream about being on a space station. It’s part of my makeup, the stuff I fantasize about.

In high school I used to go out with my friends, away from the orange glowing lights of the small town in which I grew up, to see the stars better. In college, I took astronomy courses just to spend some time in the campus observatory. If I’m honest, going into space is the crazy dream I’ve always had but never admitted out loud. Even writing it now fills me with self-consciousness and shame. And this points to a big problem many of us run into in our acting and lives as artists: We’ve been taught to be ashamed of our deepest desires.

Desire is the essence of human experience. When we are born, we scream our tiny lungs out for warmth, for comfort, for nourishment. An infant desires fully, without shame, without fear. And we did, too. Once. We used to feel a pang of desire and let out a tiny roar, letting the whole world know that we were wanting. But as soon as language began to take hold in our developing minds, that language began to be used to curb our desires and train us to behave in more socially acceptable ways. We learned to ask nicely, to wait our turn, and that sometimes we don’t get the things we want.

An even more insidious lesson we learn is the notion that some dreams, some desires, are too big and outlandish, too improbable to let ourselves pursue. I remember being told by a high school English teacher that people from small town Wisconsin don’t get to become actors, and that I was destined one day to wind up teaching English like him. To this day, I believe that my teacher genuinely had my best interests at heart. He wanted me to focus on a more practical, attainable and even noble goal. I also believe he saw something in me that he knew I could be a good teacher. But hearing his vision of my life hurt and made me think my hope of being an actor was a silly, immature notion.

Shortly after, I enrolled in college with a declared education major. I took an astronomy class that first semester as well as a stagecraft class, but I did so thinking that theater and astronomy would end up being hobbies I would do outside the hours of my practical career path.

But here’s the fact we learn to deny when we start reigning in our dreams: Many people make careers out of acting and SOMEONE gets to go to space. People become president, people cure diseases, people play in the majors, people forge new peace in the world. Barriers get broken and some days the world even changes for the better. There isn’t much in the world that is impossible, but there are plenty of people settling for less.

And of course, we may not achieve our dreams. That’s absolutely true. And it will hurt when we fail. But when we turn away from our dreams and desires, we are turning away from our fundamental selves. We deny our truth and we become numb. Because nothing hurts so bad or feels so good when we aren’t reaching for something from the core of ourselves. We become invulnerable and we coast, on autopilot, toward the inevitable let down of our lives.

But we artists cannot! We actors must embrace the vulnerability that comes from really wanting, really hoping, really yearning. Desire turns into devotion and action. It galvanizes us and gives us courage. We must fight like hell to achieve the improbable in our lives. Only then will our work truly burn with the humanity and life of a newborn’s cry.

I’ve been thinking about my student all week, who is maybe on the brink of a great adventure in his life. I’ve been thinking that one day, as improbable as it sounds, he might email me from his orbit around the earth and describe the sunrise. I’ve been feeling a little sad and jealous, but alight with the possibility of life. I’m glad he took the long shot. Let’s all take the long shot. We had to be taught to be practical. But dreaming is our natural state. Desire is our DNA.