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Auditioning for 'Survivor,' Getting My First Brazilian Wax, and Other Ways I Learned to Laugh in My 50s

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Concluding which of the 52 escapades on my “unbucket list” proved most awkward or frightening is still a toss-up.

Perhaps it was my baring it all at a nude beach, while I questioned if the helicopter flying overhead might be taking aerial — or maybe areola? — photos. Amidst my terror, I managed a snicker at my own play on words. I pushed aside my fear, squeezed my eyes shut, and adopted the logic of a 2-year-old: “If I can’t see anybody,” I attempted to assure myself, “then nobody can see me.”

It may have been the night a popular regional band unexpectedly called me up on stage to sing. My only prior public singing experience ever was decades ago, when I swayed on top of a bar booth while belting out “American Pie” along with the jukebox. This time, however, I found myself pressured to sing in front of a hundred strangers — while totally sober.

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Maybe it was posing for obligatory wedding photos as I grasped the bridal bouquet, which I inadvertently caught while crashing a wedding reception. My terror and humiliation hit an all-time high when I later discovered the TV show 20/20 featured this caper of mine in a segment titled, "The Moochers."

And surely one contender would be while I was lying on my back with my legs hiked over my head — during my first Brazilian wax. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” the esthetician told me. “I’ll want to go back and see if I’ve missed any stragglers. Then I’ll tweeze them.” I died a little more. And I never again looked at a pair of tweezers the same way.

Facing a year of challenges outside my comfort zone was filled with a double scoop of fear and mortification. I originally tackled this project simply to shake up my mid-life inertia. Yet, throughout my misadventures (chronicled in my new book, I indeed learned many truths about life and about myself.

First, I was relieved to find the anticipation of what we fear generally proves far worse than the reality. Sure, in the midst of a few situations, I wanted to crawl in a corner to cringe and cry. Even so, I discovered the terror was usually short-lived. And I gradually gained the confidence to let more and more things roll off my shoulders.

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In addition, as I began to relay snippets of these experiences on my blog and social media, I realized that as people were laughing with me, many of them were also laughing at me.

I soon grew comfortable with this: Because one of the biggest lessons I learned through it all was the ability to laugh at myself.

When was the last time most of us were able to laugh at ourselves? Maybe when we acted silly at the age of three or four and had not yet grown to be self-conscious? Yet somewhere along the way — perhaps by grade school and surely by middle school — we lose that ability.

As adults, we also forget the pure joy of silliness. But as I recall some of the happiest times spent with my children — or even memories of my own childhood — the silly moments stand out.

I found myself regaining that feeling during this yearlong venture when I performed in public as a mime, auditioned for Survivor, and spent the day in public wearing pajamas and a headful of curlers. Other people’s obvious disapproval of me mattered far less once I could find humor in the moment.

But being able to laugh at ourselves is far more difficult when we fail at something—especially while others are observing and judging us. Sure, I became a belly dancing school dropout and nearly destroyed a Segway shop in Italy during my inaugural ride. My ineptitude became secondary, however, once I found the funny in my failure.

That ability to laugh at myself often came long after the initial moments of humiliation or horror. Who would guess we might later laugh about some of the most awkward or agonizing moments we’ve ever experienced?

This essay was written by Sherry Stanfa-Stanley, author of Finding My Badass Self, a book for midlifers, fatigued parents, and anyone who needs proof that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself.

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