This excerpt is from Walker Percy’s edgy mock-self-help book, Lost in the Cosmos, published in ’83, which provides a sympathetic voice for any readers who might personally identify as a “lost self.” This little post is dedicated to any pastors/public speakers who get nervous addressing a crowd:

The Fearful Self: Why the Self is so Afraid of Being Found Out

4503_frontA recent poll asked people what they feared most. A majority of respondents agreed in ranking one fear above all others, above fear of sickness, accidents, crime, war, even death. It is the fear of speaking before a group, stage fright.

Yet, in the conventional objective scientific view, man is an organism among other organisms and a man should therefore not be terrified to be surrounded by his own kind, other like organisms who are not merely not hostile but by the very nature of the occasion well disposed, and to open his mouth and speak in a language he has learned from his fellowmen. A wolf howling alone in a wolfpack doesn’t get stage fright.

Question: What is so frightening to so many people about speaking to an audience?

(a) Is it because the ever-present chance of making a fool of oneself before one person is multiplied by the number of listeners, so that an audience of 50 persons is 50 times more terrifying than one? Is an audience of 50 million a million times more terrifying than 50?

(b) Is it because, since one person, friend or stranger, is often difficult to deal with, 50 people are 50 times more difficult?

(c) Is it because, say with an audience of 500, you are being looked at by at least 499 people whose gaze you cannot defend against by looking back, that is, you are being seen from this or that vulnerable angle where you mask or persona may not be in place?

(d) Is it because you fear a total failure of performance such as never happened in the history of the world, so that not one word will come to your mind and world chaos will follow? As evidence of such a danger, note the uneasiness of a playgoing audience when an actor forgets his lines or a congregation when a preacher falls silent for no apparent reason. The escalating terror of such a silence is a public phenomenon: five seconds of such silence is a very long time, ten seconds is almost intolerable.

(e) Is it because you know that what you present to the world is a persona, a mask, that it is a very fragile disguise, that God alone knows what is underneath since you clearly do not, perhaps nothing less than the self itself, and that if the person fails, what is revealed is unspeakable (literally, because you can’t speak it), like what was revealed when the Phantom of the Opera had his mask ripped off, a no-face, a vacancy, a hole which is much worse than the ugliest face–so frightening, in fact, that you remember as a child crawling under the seat in the movie?

Thought Experiment: If you are a shy person, which of the following situations is the most terrifying to you? Which is the least terrifying?

In the first, you are a mid-echelon executive in the sales division of a large company in which you are both successful and well liked. You are scheduled to deliver a speech at the annual banquet, an honor. You have months to prepare.

In the second, you are the character Richard Hannay in Hitchcock’s The Thirty-nine Steps. Pursued down a street by his enemies, he ducks into a doorway which happens to be a stage door and finds himself on stage at a political rally where he is mistaken for the guest speaker and introduced. He has not the faintest idea what he is supposed to talk about.

In the third, the world’s population has been destroyed by nuclear wars. Only you have survived. The earth is invaded by extraterrestrial beings. They capture you and haul you up before a large tribunal and make it known to you that you must give an account of yourself, what you are doing here, why you should be spared, etc.

Explain your choice.