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Guideposts Classics: Jane Wyman on Looking Outward

In this story from June 1964, the Oscar-winning actress recalls the priest who helped her overcome shyness and focus on God and other people.

By Jane Wyman

As appeared in

“When I first came out to Hollywood,” he said, “I discovered there are two kinds of people here. There are the ‘closed people,’ the careful ones who don’t take risks and don’t get hurt. And there are the ‘open people,’ the ones who give life all they’ve got.

"They make mistakes, they get hurt, but they also get back a lot of joy.”

I recognized myself right there as one of the closed people and my bright personality as the shell for a clam. I began to want very much to open the shell. I began to loathe the brassy blonde I played in the movies. Suddenly I longed to play real people, to move the hearts of real people.

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Today I would call this quality of deep yearning, “prayer,” and what happened next, a small miracle. Then, I only knew that no sooner had I set my heart on changing than I was offered two roles about unmistakably real people: first in Lost Weekend and then in The Yearling.

I worked on those parts as I’d never worked before, sat up nights with my lines, studied them for hidden meanings over my meals. When those films were finished, the studio decided I was ready for the role of the deaf-mute in Johnny Belinda.

With that part came the Academy Award, and surely, I thought, surely now I will stop hiding. Surely I will feel some kind of self-esteem and confidence.

But the months passed, my Oscar collected dust on a shelf, and I made a dismal discovery. External achievements change nothing: inside I was the same tormentingly stay person I always had been.

My real self still was hiding in the shadows, sending someone else out front to greet the world. It was an exhausting way to live.

Then, 10 years ago, I went to England to do a picture for the Royal Academy. It was a lonely time: I knew no one outside the cast and I did a lot of walking, and thinking.

During my solitary rambles I found myself wandering into Westminster Abbey, first as a sightseer–then over and over again to try to grasp something I felt there. Something that felt like approval. Like acceptance. Like love.

I tried to dismiss the experience. It was, I rationalized, only the reaction of a homesick woman in a foreign land. I almost had convinced myself when I met the man who at last threw a searchlight on the girl in the shadows.

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I was back in Hollywood and tie was a kindly old priest with a manner so gentle, so uncritical, that suddenly I found myself talking to him about things I’d never told anyone.

I found myself telling him about the little girl who was too shy to speak above a whisper, about my lifelong struggle with the same feelings. “I thought if I only could succeed at something, then I wouldn’t be shy. But I have had success, of a kind, and I feel just the same.”

“Of course you do.” The priest smiled at me. “Shyness isn’t a matter of doing well, or not doing well. It isn’t a matter of whether you’re handsome or plain.”

Over his cluttered desk, tie looked at me. “Shyness, Miss Wyman, is a little matter of self-centeredness.”

I blinked. The words were harsh but he said them so mildly, that I resisted a familiar impulse to flee into a protective shell.

“That’s all,” he continued cheerfully. “Just a little tendency to think of the whole world as terribly interested in oneself. You know, the feeling that every eye in the room is focused on one–whereas actually most of the other people there are pretty much involved with their own problems.

“Now fortunately,” he went on as he rummaged for something in the maelstrom on his desk, “the Bible gives us some very specific instructions for dealing with selfcenteredness.” He located his Bible, found the passage he wanted, and handed it to me.