The tantalizing power of going off script
There’s something vaguely tantalizing about the woman who goes off the rails. From Evelyn Couch losing her mind in a grocery store parking lot in Fried Green Tomatoes to Britney Spears shaving her head, we watch — unable to turn away.
I recently had one of those moments.
My hair is safe, and I didn’t ram anyone’s car with my own. It’s a story on a smaller scale. I was sitting outside at baseball evaluations waiting for my son. I’d had a stomach virus all day and was trying to sit as far as possible from other human beings while still being close enough to supervise my child on the field and my child on the playground. Two children started throwing a baseball right beside me, and I’d had about enough.
On a normal day, I would have moved or asked them to move — especially since balls kept landing around me. But it was not a normal day. I didn’t have the energy to engage. Talking seemed counterproductive to keeping my nausea at bay. I kept flinching as the ball came nearer and nearer. When it finally hit me, I picked it up with the nearest hand and, without looking, launched it over the nearest fence to the shock and dismay of two children and a nearby parent.
I went back to minding my own business like nothing had happened when I was confronted by the parent who observed the interaction. Was that my child? No. Why did I do it? Because I had a problem and that was a solution.
Granted, my chronic illness lowers my impulse control, but even that didn’t entirely explain why I threw it over instead of handing it back. One might even assume that I’m just a mean and nasty person rather than a person who was sick and tired of getting repeatedly hit while feeling sick and tired. I had just had enough.
That’s the moment we identify with in books and films — the moment when they’ve just had enough and finally do what they only imagined doing before. There’s power at that moment where they go off the rails from doing what is expected to doing what they want.
There was no real power in throwing the ball in one direction rather than the other. In fact, on any other day, I wouldn’t have done that at all. I would have thought it was an odd thing to even consider. But sometimes, there’s an urge just to go off script. To do the unexpected. To be spontaneous in the moment.
Maybe it’s validating because we’ve all just had enough. Life is hard, and sometimes we get pushed too far. Every now and then, doing the unexpected just plain feels good.
On good days, that unexpected could look like a random act of kindness. But on bad days? Well, I threw the ball, and I can’t decide if I’m sorry for it or if I’m just trying to figure out who I was in the moment to do that — and if that’s who I want to be.
Rules for Going Off the Rails
While the thought of being completely unhinged has its benefits, we should probably have rules. Rules for going off the rails may seem odd and counterintuitive, but it seems like a good idea to have some parameters.
Do No Harm
This is essential. Some people go off the rails and cause mass tragedies. They hurt people because they are hurting. We watch those stories, but we don’t enjoy them. They aren’t satisfying. They’re terrifying. If we’re going to go just a little bit crazy, it’s important that we do no harm.
No child was irreparably harmed by learning not to throw baseballs at bystanders. The pearl-clutching parent wasn’t harmed by a ball being lobbed back onto the field. While it wasn’t my kindest moment, I don’t think it did any real harm.
This can’t always be said about unhinged moments. In fact, the very fact that we’ve gone off-script and acted out of impulse can prevent us from considering the full consequences of our actions and who they might harm.
Be True to You
I can’t decide if I followed this entirely made-up rule or not. There’s a part of me that’s pragmatic enough to see a problem and just solve it, but that part normally behaves a bit more rationally. If we’re going to do something unexpected, we might want to make sure that the unexpected aligns with who we are as individuals.
Authenticity is important. The moment loses its power if we act in ways that aren’t representative of who we are at a deeper level. It’s not so much a matter of acting out of character as finally allowing our true character, a deeper side of who we are, to shine.
Accept the Consequences
The truth is that an angry rant or momentary lapse in our usual behavior can have consequences. I know at least one parent thinks I’m crazy. I might never see her again, but in a town this small, that’s unlikely. There could be consequences for behaving like a nutcase in public, and I’ll just have to accept that.
Following our impulses may seem right in the moment, but we need to understand that actions have reactions. If we’re standing up for someone, maybe the consequences are worth it. If we’re having the adult version of a temper tantrum, maybe there’s a better way.
Know Real Power
Real power doesn’t usually look like impulsively doing something out of character. Real power is aligning our actions to our values even if the rules say otherwise. It’s living our lives authentically even if other people don’t approve. That’s the real power move — not to make waves because we can but to ride them in a way that feels honest to who we are and how we want to live.
Did it make me feel powerful to go off-script? It did. But in the wake of that power was the knowledge that the stronger move would have been to do the right thing even in the face of my own exhaustion and illness. Maybe the impulse of the moment did little more than remind me that I can make that choice, not that I should.
There are reasons the unhinged woman is a powerful narrative. Maybe it’s just watching women stand up to a lifetime of misogyny and mistreatment. It’s seeing someone who has been weak find their strength in a momentary impulse that simply becomes momentum to change.
Originally published on Medium