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'The Universal Man': How I Acted Out My Anxiety on Stage

To paraphrase the former would-be Vice-Presidential candidate Admiral James Stockdale: “Who is the Universal Man? Why is he here?”

These are questions that I’ve asked of myself. Depending on who’s asking and/or what the conversation is about, I’ll give slightly different answers. There’s the short, easy answer; and then there’s the long, complex answer. Let’s start with the short response and then work backwards.

The Universal Man is a fictional superhero character I created and portrayed during my work as a summer camp counselor. I chose that name as a sort-of ode to “Doctor Who,” a TV show which has lifted my spirits and inspired me for the last 12 years, and because I imagined my character as an enigmatic figure who may or may not have looked to the stars a few times.

Anyway, we were acting out a cliche-free superhero story over a three-day period, which began with the apparent theft of the camp’s dinnertime cookies by the Joker and his villainous underlings. Batman chased the bad guys away, and then the Universal Man stepped up, introduced himself, and gave the campers (and counselors) some not-so-cryptic instructions as to how to defeat the villains and recover the cookies. The Universal Man was unable to assist with the rescue mission any more than that, but he was the wise, enlightened hero who led everyone else down the right path.

The following afternoon, the Universal Man returned, having opened up a thrilling, brand new “Superhero Academy.” He was looking to recruit some brand new superheroes into his Academy to step up the fight against evil. Acting on his request, the campers created some new heroes for him (i.e. they dressed their counselors up in character), and these new heroes were introduced to the Universal Man through a series of on-stage interviews. He welcomed his new allies into his Academy with great excitement… and then, in a massive plot twist, he gleefully let his pretense slip away. The Universal Man was actually the arch-villain of the story.

After confessing he had masterminded the previous evening’s cookie theft, he revealed that the Superhero Academy was a sham. It was nothing more than a lure for the new superheroes. Frustrated at the campers’ (and counselors’) repeated, deliberate failure to sing his favorite camp song correctly, the Universal Man was hungry to get his own back. He thus ordered his accomplices, the Batman villains, to kidnap the new superheroes and hide them away at various locations around the camp…

With some assistance from Batman, the campers and counselors eventually located and rescued the new superheroes. But, in a further plot twist, the Universal Man renounced the kidnapping plot (while showing no signs of repentance), and announced that Batman had actually helped him plan and orchestrate the whole plot! As he tried to pin all the blame on Batman — who had joined onto the villainous plot out of fear that the new superheroes would bin him off and steal his limelight — the Universal Man encouraged the campers to think of a theatrical punishment for him. It was only then that the camp director spoke up, pointing out that even the campers were not blameless in the story: they had (mostly unintentionally) antagonized the Universal Man by repeatedly singing his favorite song incorrectly, and in their mission to rescue the superheroes, they had undertaken challenges that forced them to go against our cherished, fundamental character values. She, Batman and the Universal Man had actually engineered the whole story to make this point, emphasizing that “good vs. evil” is always an oversimplification, and that empathy and dialogue would have helped everyone (campers, Batman and the Universal Man) to avoid defying our Pillars of Character. (Batman avoided receiving a theatrical punishment as a result!)

That’s my short, “easy” answer to the question of who the Universal Man is: he was a superhero who took extreme offense whenever he felt he was being belittled or undermined and who wasn’t afraid to resort to an elaborate plan to make himself look big.

Now for the long, complex answer:

The Universal Man is a walking metaphor for my anxiety.

While I was writing his character biography in my head, I imagined him as a man who feels the world has been acting against him in every way for too long. He never felt adequate in his academic or social lives because he was too used to being on the receiving end of trivial, malicious criticisms. Whenever he attempted to do anything or apply himself to anything, it was never enough. All of his friends and peers were flying high and succeeding in their fields, and everyone else on the Universal Man’s program of study was having more fun, more enjoyment, more positivity, and more good fortune than he was. The Universal Man had been ranked third (out of almost 100) in his class a couple of years earlier; he ultimately graduated outside the top 20 (out of a graduating class of 50-60).

His feelings of inadequacy hadn’t started there — they’d been around for a long time before that. But they were magnified by the events of the last year. And he had never really forgiven himself for walking into what he termed “the heartbreak that changed his life” a few years earlier.

I didn’t have to look too far to devise this character because this character was me.

In the year before I created the Universal Man, I was working on my final-year university project in a university research building. My colleagues took an immediate dislike to me and held me up to double standards, unrealistically high expectations (especially in the first few weeks), and a general impression that I was clearly incompetent in my field of study. It got vicious a few times. I mostly got through it by keeping my head down and avoiding them as much as possible, but, for the first time in my life, I was once overcome by a genuine fear that this was the end of the road. I was stuck. I wouldn’t be able to graduate.

I did graduate in the end — but the saga had scuppered any chances that I would graduate with a top-quality grade. So, in a sense, the nightmare came partially true. One week later, I was treading the boards in character as the Universal Man. I couldn’t have asked for a better trick to help me to cope with the past and move forward from it.

It helped that the Universal Man was a villainous character. He allowed me to vent my frustrations as subtly as possible. At least one of his lines of dialogue was adapted directly from one of the most hurtful criticisms I’d received during the last year. The Universal Man’s apparent hypocrisy — in getting angry at the campers over the trivial issue of song lyrics, before ordering the kidnapping of six inspirational new superheroes — was a liberating call-out to my old critics (who weren’t around to watch me this time). Best of all, I was able to get away with playing such an angry character because I was careful to ham it up for the most part, thus pitching the Universal Man as neither a horror-movie monstrosity nor an outright comedy villain. And then his evil plot was thwarted.

So my ghosts were symbolically vented and defeated there. But I still struggle to put my anxiety away all the time, even with that particular experience confined to the past. So I’ve been trying a new tactic in recent months: using the Universal Man as a personification of my fears. “The Universal Man is out to make you fail. He wants you to do a bad job. He’s whispering critical remarks into everyone’s ears, and he wants to blow their remarks out of proportion. He’s cheering for/giving strength to all of your opponents in your competitive swimming races. When you were turned down after that recent job interview, he looked at you from across the street and laughed in your face.”

It definitely works. The Universal Man was born out of perhaps the darkest time of my life so far, and he has helped me to try to decouple my anxieties from what’s actually happening around me. He is still a “version” of me, but he’s not the real me — he’s just a character. And I am aiming to stop him from winning. “Don’t let the Universal Man win” is a good promise, and I hope to stick to it.