Britta Gustafson: Remember who you are

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

Few things pluck at all of my emotional strings at once like the sounds and sights of children on stage.

But an emotional swell of a different kind took hold last weekend watching a group of mask-clad middle schoolers performing “The Lion King Jr.” in a half-empty theater.

Slated for a performance date of last April, I could almost feel the casts’ collective agony when the show was canceled last March. It’s cancellation came at that same moment when their young lives went screeching off the tracks of familiarity and still continue roving discursively along.

Now here we are, trying to cling to “normal,” and so I guess the show must go on. Bravo to Theatre Aspen for pulling it off, because these kids need hope to keep their spirits alive.

All through this uncertain scenario, I’ve maintained a hope that kids have a certain innate flexibility that we adults almost instruct out of them as they grow.

Whether we intend to, we grown-ups, by way of cultural acceptance, seem to teach them conformity. We line them up and project onto them a certain standard of expectations for their lives; expectations that we have predetermined, as if there isn’t any respectable alternative. That tunnel-vision approach to growing up may have the advantage of gently allowing for adaptation into the less predictable reality of adult life, though perhaps it isn’t as good at preparing them for life’s inevitable uncertainties, such as global pandemics and the like.

With natural disasters, protests and messy politics shaping the backdrop to their daily lives, some of the wonder and blissful innocence of childhood has been wilting. So I suppose we very much need to sing and dance and perform more to remember that the goal is not a set of expectations but the ability to roll with the punches, seek out beauty, find happiness in the shadows and be prepared to pivot. Kids get it; so I’m learning the lessons more through them than on my own.

And last weekend they sang their hearts out, performing for the pure joy of it, as much for one another as for the small, socially distanced audience.

The tears I felt silently steaming down, pooling on my mask, were not only falling because it felt in some way tragic to see them making the most of their lives while coping with the reality of this era. Those tears were a mixed bag of the parental joy in seeing this hard-earned moment coming to fruition, muddled by a sadness that perhaps their generation has been cheated out of a blissfully unaware childhood and that these moments may become less a part of their futures. The contradicting emotional outpouring didn’t stop there as I wondered were they also the tears of immense gratitude for a taste of something that felt eerily vintage; a live stage performance inside a theater? The scene was familiar enough to be a throwback moment if we were not all sitting with a six-seat peripheral barrier of physical and sentient distance between us. Or, perhaps more than anything the tears came as I was overwhelmed wondering if these kids were having this moment in the eye of a hurricane.

This generation will not see the world the same way we did. They may never have standards or expectations. They might well be forced to learn, out of necessity, how to really enjoy their journey because the destination may remain unclear. And maybe that’s OK, maybe they will be ready and resilient in ways that I couldn’t have taught them, in a time on this planet when they will need it most.

My emotions piqued as they performed “Hakuna Matata,” the no worries song from “The Lion King.” They were fantastic performers, filling the stage with their radiant energy, perhaps having the time of their lives.

During that song I found myself drifting to the memory of the first time that I had heard that song as a child watching Disney’s “Lion King” on the big screen in the crowded Aspen Stage 3 Theater. At that time I had believed that Hakuna Matata was the attitude to strive for in life; to find a carefree, problem free, no worries state of being. And it struck me, that I may have missed the point, that my generation missed the point, which is that we can’t ignore our responsibilities in the pursuit of happiness. But mine, and the subsequent generation, had the luxury of a lot more Hakuna Matata than this generation of young kids may be afforded, and it was perhaps at their expense.

Most young kids, left to their own devices, do not sing or dance or take on a performance role in order to impress or flaunt, to elevate or vindicate; they are not seeking fortune or fame, they simply desire the collective experience, the connection and creative self expression that comes from living in that moment treading the boards in the spotlight. They may not be allowed the blissful ignorance we enjoyed, but perhaps something even more meaningful will take its place. Maybe mine were tears of joy after all, because maybe this generation will remember who they are: Generation Hope.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at