Ferris Bueller’s Day of Life Lessons: Part II

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a hero-worship complex. I am obsessed with the idea of being special, important, heroic and extraordinary. The mundane life was repulsive to me for a long time, and may have fueled my initial career aspirations to be an FBI agent (no joke). And perhaps my continued aspirations to be BFFs with Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Despite this obsession, I tend to be drawn to the side characters in movies and books: Ron and Hermione in Harry Potter, Sam, Merry and Pippin in Lord of the Rings, and yes, Cameron in Ferris Bueller. In reality, these are the people I can actually relate to. The every day Steves and Sallys, coming to terms with their own reality in life—and no less heroic than their famous friends.

At the beginning of Ferris, Cameron Frye is undoubtedly the most miserable and forgotten character. While showing no signs of actual ailment, he spends the beginning of his day off lying in bed like an invalid. Unlike Ferris, who is worshiped like a god, Cameron is all but forgotten by everyone around him–except Ferris. Throughout the course of the movie, we come to find out Cameron’s “illness” is more mental than anything. Perhaps he suffers from depression, perhaps he’s simply too afraid to live his life in the world. But it is this aspect of Cameron that made me connect with him so much.

A couple of years ago, my mom found a letter I had written to myself. Possibly for a school assignment, the letter was me setting goals for myself. I said I’d been too lazy and wanted to work harder, that I needed to prioritize school and reading and stay on top of my responsibilities—and not get distracted by silly stuff.

I wrote it in 5th grade.

It’s only been in retrospect that I’ve been able to see this pattern in my life of setting impossibly high standards for myself, and then punishing myself when I could inevitably not achieve them. By senior year of high school I was skipping school days at a time, just to stay home and sleep on the couch or watch movies. I was lost in a haze of depression and self-loathing and no one really seemed to notice. Just like Cameron at the beginning of Ferris Bueller.


“Pardon my French, but Cameron is so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond.”


In my second year living in New Orleans, I was struggling with another bout of depression and self-hatred. I was viciously angry with myself and my life all the time, and I could tell my friends were getting sick of listening to me. I was seeing a therapist but felt I wasn’t making much headway. One afternoon I was compelled to sit down and write in the journal I keep. What I found pouring out of my pen was the following list (copied directly from said journal):

“Things I mentally punish myself for”:

  • Being lazy
  • Not working hard enough
  • Not exercising enough
  • Not eating well
  • Eating too much
  • Drinking too much
  • Not being a good friend to my friends
  • Not being worthy of a relationship
  • Not getting grades in on time
  • Not keeping my room clean
  • Not telling my roommates how I feel
  • Not speaking up for myself
  • Not being more patient
  • Being lazy
  • Being lazy
  • Being lazy
  • Being tired and resting
  • Not reading enough
  • Watching too much tv
  • Not dressing well
  • Being late
  • Not getting up early enough
  • Not being prepared enough for class
  • Not planning well
  • Not helping my students move forward enough
  • Wanting a relationship too much
  • Being lazy
  • Being lazy
  • Being lazy
  • Not keeping up with family birthdays
  • Not calling my sisters and brother enough
  • Not keeping in touch with friends enough
  • Being too self-critical
  • Not doing “good enough”—at everything
  • Seeking everyone’s approval too much
  • Every facet of how I interact with guys
  • Being lazy
  • Being lazy
  • Being lazy
  • Not being funny enough
  • Wanting to pursue comedy and improv—it’s selfish
  • Not being special enough
  • Being susceptible to illnesses
  • Any time I cry
  • Being impatient
  • Being angry
  • Not being perfect
  • Not being a good teacher

The list probably could have continued to go on, but I sat there dumbfounded after writing it. Seeing it all laid out on paper, I realized that the reason I was depressed—both then and in high school—was because I was mentally abusing myself. Were I to say those things to someone else, that’s exactly what it would be–abuse. But because I’d been saying them to myself, in my own head, they’d been sliding by for years in disguise of me trying to make myself a better person. When I think about it now, I think of Silas, the monk in The Da Vinci Code, or Helena in “Orphan Black”, who used self-flagellation as a form of penance. My self-abuse was never physical but it fit the same idea. I needed to berate myself for not being perfect, heroic, extraordinary, and in the berating, I’d find some sort of redemption.

But anyone can see how obviously flawed the system is. I was literally hating myself for things like “being tired and resting”, “being susceptible to illness”, and “being too self-critical”. I even felt guilty about pursuing my hobbies! No one could possibly live up to these standards, and so of course I felt compelled to spend days at a time in front of the TV, trying to drown out this voice and ignore how I felt—only to hear it scream louder the more I tried to hide. When I watch Ferris Bueller now, I see this version of me in Cameron as he lies in his bed, resisting Ferris’ attempt to get him up and out of the house. I see this version of me in him kicking the shit out of his father’s car. Cameron’s beef is with his dad (supposedly, though I think he probably did some self-hating too); my beef is with my own brain. And I sometimes want to yell and kick the shit out of it for making me feel this way too.


“I am not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand. I’m going to defend it. Right or wrong, I’m going to defend it.”


In season 2 of “Orange is the New Black” (excellent show, go watch it right now…scratch that, after you finish reading this) SoSo, the Bambi-eyed Chatty Cathy of a new inmate, gives a rambling monologue about her theory that Ferris was actually a figment of Cameron’s imagination the whole time. And is then promptly told to shut the fuck up. I found it hilarious because I think it was my “inner Ferris” that finally started pulling me out of the depression, the same way “real” Ferris does for Cameron. My inner Ferris found improv.

I have a t-shirt from the UCB theater in New York which sums it up best—across the back it simply reads “Don’t Think”.

For someone like myself, who becomes so caught up in the hurricane of my own thoughts that I literally can be paralyzed, it is catharsis in the way Cameron’s “scream heard round Chicago” must have been. A lot of mental health advice out there preaches ways to think differently or re-train your brain—but that kind of feels like juggling and then being told to twirl plates at the same time. I don’t pretend to be a professional, nor am I giving advice, but for me, more thinking isn’t helpful. I end up with the contradictions I described above—hating myself for hating myself. I freeze up in improv scenes and when talking to people who make me nervous because I’m not paying attention to them, I’m arguing with myself in my own head. More thinking is just going to turn me into Sybil.

But man…DON’T THINK…how refreshing an idea…

When I just empty my mind of that swirling storm of doubts and hesitations and trust that my gut and instincts will lead me in the right direction, it’s magical. I’ve done some of my best improv that way. You have to LISTEN to what’s going on around you and respond to it—and tell yourself to shut the fuck up.

That’s why I chase improv like a drug. It is a high, that moment on stage where you’re so IN IT that you’ve forgotten everything around you and you’re simply acting on instinct and running after the fun of a scene. It’s the exact same feeling I got as a kid when I would play pretend. No worries about “supposed to”, no concern about who’s watching. Just finding what’s fun and doing it as much as possible. This is exactly what Ferris does throughout the entire movie. Consequences be damned, he’s going to have a fun day.

Ferris Bueller = The embodiment of “Yes, And…”


“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

cameron and ferris

As I try to channel my inner Ferris, I have to remember that Cameron was his best friend. They balance each other—Ferris brings Cameron out of the house and wakes him up to his life, Cameron provides the voice of reason and reality for Ferris’  outlandish ideas. I haven’t gotten it all figured out—duh. But I don’t pity this part of me either. Just as Ferris finds compassion and acceptance for Cameron’s struggles (despite the aforementioned coal-into-diamond comment), I try to find compassion and acceptance for that wounded part of myself.

To wrap this all up, I have to include these two quotes. I couldn’t quite figure out where to place them but I feel they are very relevant to this entire posting and so here is as good a spot as any:

“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.” ~Vincent van Gogh

“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.” ~Robert Hughes

So whatever the “artistry” is, be it improv or writing or simply living, it comes with self-doubt and a critical little voice in your head. But as van Gogh so elegantly put it—to silence the voice you just have to do it more. Or as Del Close so brilliantly said to his improvisers, “Follow the fear”.

And therefore that’s what I do. I find things that scare me and I actively chase after them. I “Yes &” my entire life (I have it tattooed on my wrist for god’s sakes) because it’s the only way not to let that voice in my head win. I’ve moved across the country, alone, twice. I started doing improv and it terrified me. In several days I will leave to travel Europe, alone, for 3 weeks. I chase after everything that terrifies me with vigor because—like Cameron says at the end of the movie—I’m tired of being afraid. The pull to hide from the scary, to stay home with Netflix and try to avoid it all, is strong. But if I’ve learned anything from this whole ordeal, it’s that living, truly living, involves fear—but it’s a hell of a lot better than anything else.

This will be my last for a while, as I’m heading overseas in a few days. I will surely have new insights and stories to share when I return. Until then, thanks for stopping by.

Jeez, I sound like Mr. Rodgers…

Mmmm, OOOOhhhhh Yeeeeaahhhhh—chicka chick-Ahhh (you know…song from the movie? Ahhh, I give up)


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Annie Kawalski
    Jul 10, 2014 @ 02:00:17

    Your post really spoke to me again, Kate. I too, have intense tendencies to be hard on myself. You have a gift for putting your unique struggles to words. Rest assured, you are not alone. I hope that your trip is off to a great start!


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