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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.
How annoyed I get today when I hear someone teased for being shy! “Come on!” they shout, dragging him into a crowded room. “Don’t be shy!” As though not being shy were a matter of will power. Or, “You’re just shy!” as though that were the most minor of problems.
Shyness is not a small problem: it can cripple the whole personality. It crippled mine, for many years.
As a child my only solution to the problem of shyness was to hide, to make myself as small and insignificant as possible. All through grade school I was a well-mannered little shadow who never spoke above a whisper. In ballet class I haunted the corners of the room, hoping the dancing master would not see me.
The very thought of performing in front of someone made me wilt with fear, quite literally.
The saddest part of it was that I idolized Dad Prinz, the dancing master. He was the most understanding man I had ever met and I longed to tell him so. I never did.
Then my parents left St. Joseph, Missouri, and moved to Los Angeles. And now a new and more threatening dimension had been added to life outside the big city high school walls. Dating. It seemed to me that on some prearranged signal, every boy and girl in school paired off.
Every girl, that is, except me. I don’t know whether I could have had dates or not; it simply never occurred to me to try. Hadn’t I been told many times that I was not pretty? I lugged home piles of books every night and disappeared into them.
And then the Depression came. In California it seemed to hit older people like my father especially hard. Overnight I was thrust from my safe little book-world into the world of job hunting.
In all that vast, bewildering city, I knew only one person who might give me a job: LeRoy Prinz, the famous Hollywood dance coach, Dad Prinz’ son. He gave me a tryout and discovered I had a sense of rhythm. “As long as you’ve got that,” he said, “I can teach you the rest.”
Under LeRoy Prinz’ coaching I began to get chorus parts in the movies, those lavish, glittery, extravagant movies we loved in the hungry ‘30s.
It was work when the family badly needed the money, but for a girl who had grown up in terror of being looked at, it was also agony.
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Then I made a discovery: a good shield for shyness is a bold exterior. Did my heart turn over when the man with the megaphone bellowed out my name? Were all the other dancers prettier?
Never mind. I covered up by becoming the cockiest of all, by talking the loudest, laughing the longest, and wearing the curliest, most blatantly false eyelashes in Hollywood.
And then one day a fellow chorus girl gave me a piece of advice:
“Jane, you’d improve your looks about a thousand percent if you’d peel off those trimmings and wash your face.”
I was crushed. I wept. I hated her. But the next day, feeling completely bald, I showed up on the set without my disguise. We hadn’t been rehearsing half an hour before a comparative stranger stopped and stared at me.
“Gee, Jane,” he said. “You look great.”
For me it was the heavens parting. Could he have meant that I looked great? It was the first hint I had that I could be myself without the sky falling in.
But the insight went only skin deep. I shed the eyelashes, but I wasn’t about ready to shed the tough, smart little shell.
I had begun to get a few minor acting parts and they were just the kind you would expect. I was the brash blonde girl reporter rushing into the newspaper office to shout “Stop the presses!”
Then one day on the set someone else said something that shone another bit of light through the defense I’d set up.
“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.
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.
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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.
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.
I looked at the Bible passage. It was the Ten Commandments.
“The first four,” he said, “deal with our relationship to God. They get our attention out where it belongs: on Him and His majesty. And the last six tell us how we ought to conduct ourselves toward other people. They keep our attention out there, away from ourselves and onto our neighbors.”
I looked down at the Commandments again. I had read them a hundred times, of course, but something in the old priest’s voice filled them with an unspeakable promise.
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It was the first of many interviews with this priest who became my spiritual mentor. And I have never forgotten what he told me the first time we met, about the cause of shyness, and its cure.
Not that I have succeeded in following all the Commandments in all their fullness, but the act of trying to has worked a big change in my life.
For when I looked away from myself I discovered a whole world full of other people. Fascinating people, people with woes and joys I had never imagined. I didn’t have much time left to worry about the impression I was making, once I really began seeing them.
But best of all, out there, I am finding God. Not much of Him, yet. At first it was just a shadow, a glimmering. But getting to know Him better, listening for Him, contemplating Him, loving Him, is a 24-hour-a-day assignment. Shy? I just haven’t got time.
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