Wisdom//

Actor Josh Radnor On Why He’s OK With Feeling Uninspired at Times

“I love the eureka moments, but I’m also old enough to understand that there is a time to sow and a time to reap.”

Suparat Malipoom / EyeEm/ Getty Images
Suparat Malipoom / EyeEm/ Getty Images

I want to talk about feeling uninspired. But first, I have some thoughts about mustaches.

I’m in New York City for the next six months or so working on “The Hunt,” a super exciting series for Amazon that Jordan Peele is producing with an amazing cast, including an up-and-comer named Al Pacino. The show is about a gang of vigilante Nazi hunters in New York City in the 1970s. I play a movie star called Lonny Flash who’s battling addiction issues but staying (largely) on the straight and narrow by killing Nazis. It’s a really fascinating, dark, funny, unsettling piece and I’m so happy to be a part of it.

When I came in to consult with the hair and makeup department about Lonny’s “look,” the make-up person, Arielle, looked at me and said “I’m thinking mustache and chops.” And I was like, “That’s exactly what I was thinking.” So I hopped in her chair and she took down my — if I may say so myself — mightily impressive beard and Lonny Flash emerged.

So something weird has happened: I think this facial hair has changed my personality. Not in any sort of earth-shaking ways, I just feel… different. A touch weirder, occasionally ridiculous, but on the whole more confident and bold. I mentioned this to my friend Trent and he said, “Yeah, man. You gotta stop acting like a guy who doesn’t have a mustache!”

Actors know how deeply a wig or costume or pair of shoes can change a performance, that there’s as good a chance you’ll find the character at your wardrobe fitting as in the rehearsal room. Sometimes you work inside out and other times outside in. There’s something about this 70s garb and the facial hair that has allowed me access to some parts of myself that had been dormant. I’m not going to go into exactly what they are (you’ll just have to watch the show on Amazon next year), but it feels very real and significant. It’s startling and somewhat refreshing to look in the mirror in the morning and see a different face than the one you’ve grown accustomed to.

It’s made me think a lot about these things we call “personalities.” If altered facial hair can make me feel like a different person, how fixed — really — are our tastes, opinions, political leanings? Are we perhaps more mutable than we’d care to admit? It feels like a question worth asking given how fiercely dug in people seem to be at the moment around their particular points of view.

One of the reasons I find travel to be so vital and life-affirming is this: When we stare at the same things we tend to think the same thoughts and feel the same feelings. When we stare at new things, new thoughts and feelings emerge. Disruption and dislocation are two spiritual principles in which I firmly believe. It may sound rather obvious to say, but if everything stays the same, nothing changes.

****

I have a kind of guiding philosophy with basically everything I write in the non-fiction realm these days: I try not to write something unless it’s borne of experience, that it’s wisdom I feel I’ve earned and can honestly share. Sometimes, though, I’m stumped. I don’t know what to write about or even doubt that I have anything of value to share. I know that I could plunder some of my past writings or insights and whip something up that feels appropriately muse-y. And maybe some people would get something from it. But I’m thinking lately it’s best to simply give an honest account of where I’m at in whatever moment I should find myself.

In this moment: I’m feeling uninspired, stalled, dull. Not in any kind of alarming way. It’s just where I am. And I’m okay with it. Whenever I’m feeling stuck or sad or just generally down, I comfort myself with the knowledge that I’ve never had any feeling that’s stuck around forever. Not a single one. I have to remind myself of this because when I’m feeling low there’s something in my brain that convinces me that’s how I’m going to feel forever.

One of the mercies, I’ve found, in getting older is that the sample data becomes much larger. Our first heartbreak is devastating because we have no evidence that we will survive it. But years pass and you look back and see that you’ve visited a lot of those dark places and though you may have felt hopeless at the time, you can see that you did emerge better, stronger, wiser.

I love the eureka moments, the dot-connecting, the treasure-discovery, the busting through to new levels of awareness. But I’m also old enough to understand the truth that there is a time to sow and a time to reap, that life is not meant to be an unending series of blinding insights and staggering leaps forward. A lot of times it’s just huffing and puffing, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other up the mountain trying not to puke. Sometimes it’s a slip and a fall. Simply summoning the determination to keep going when you’d really rather not seems to be a lot of what life is. Even when you’re not quite sure what the goal is, if this rumored oasis atop the mountain even exists. Like a lot of people I learned to put on a brave face, to keep it all together, to hide my wounds, to smile and say “Great!” when people ask how I’m doing. But masks are exhausting and uncomfortable. And ultimately unsustainable. At some point we want to rip them off.

There’s a well-known actor — we’re not close, but I know him well enough to chat when we run into each other — and he does this thing that’s always made me laugh. When you ask how he is he doesn’t say “Fine” or “Great.” He says “I get sad sometimes.” I just love it. Because he’s saying the thing we’re not supposed to say but is 100 percent true for every human being. “I get sad sometimes” is a thrilling violation of societal code, a subtle rebellion against the tyranny of the happy face we’re told we need to have affixed to our skulls at all times.

I’m not depressed or anxious or even all that sad. I just feel kind of “blah and uninspired and out of touch with my constitutional optimism. And the growth for me is in not swatting it away, but rather writing from this place, honoring it without shaming myself or saying I shouldn’t be feeling as I’m feeling. I can already feel that something is shifting and moving as I type, that some kind of stuckness is unsticking.

We know ourselves to be wounded, fallible creatures and we’ve an unfortunate tendency to suffer with that knowledge in isolation, convinced everyone but us has it all together and figured out. Yet if I hear someone say “Sometimes I get really anxious and can kind of work myself into a panic over nothing,” it gives me the chance to say ”Same for me!” The sharing of our stories is the antidote to the modern maladies of loneliness and disconnection.

So I’m not on top of the world. And I’m certainly not at the bottom of the pit. I’m in the trudge up the mountain. My breathing is labored and my backpack is heavy and I want to stop and rest or even turn back. From this place maybe all I’ve got to share is a quick glance to a fellow traveler engaged in their own struggle, to let them see the struggle in my own face so we can connect. “Yeah, it’s hard.” And in that moment we both feel less alone.

That’s not nothing.


If you enjoyed this story from Josh, sign up for his Museletters here.

And read Josh’s other Thrive Global pieces on reflecting on deathlessons from acting classfighting for progressresisting the urge to play it safebeing upfront about our wounds, his favorite quotesmusic and heartbreakchoosing more than one careerfame and the mindset shift that changed his lifespiritualitycoping with the pain of loss, and why we need new metrics of success in our work.

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