What happened to Jim Carrey?
It’s a question that seems to be on a lot of people’s minds, especially after a deliciously weird interview in the middle of New York Fashion Week a few months ago. “There’s no meaning to any of this,” Carrey says to a frazzled E! News reporter. “Peace lies beyond personality, beyond invention and disguise…I believe we’re a field of energy dancing for itself. And I don’t care.” Trying to course correct, the interviewer notes that he seems to have gotten pretty dressed up for the event, but Carrey doesn’t budge. “No, I didn’t get dressed up,” he says. “There is no me.”
Like other millennials, I spent a lot of time in the late 1990s watching—you might even say studying—Jim Carrey films. There was something about Carrey’s performances in comedies like Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura that lit up my teenage mind and shaped my sense of humor.
But who is this guy talking about fields of energy and his own non-existence?
The answer lies in the new Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. The film showcases behind-the-scenes footage of Carrey during the filming of Man on the Moon, a 1999 biopic about the mind-bending comedian and performance artist, Andy Kaufman. In the footage—hitherto kept under lock and key—we see Carrey stay in character as Andy (or his obnoxious lounge singer alter ego, Tony Clifton) even when the cameras aren’t rolling, driving many on the set, including the visibly exasperated Milos Forman, out of their minds. It’s a fascinating film, a kind of Russian nesting doll of adult make-believe.
Looking back on the whole experience, Carrey muses on the nature of comedy, celebrity, and success. But becoming Andy Kaufman stirred up something much more profound in Jim Carrey: a kind of awakening about the falseness of personality, including his own.
After the film wraps, Carrey struggles to reenter his own life. He doesn’t know how to act, what to believe, what to feel. “Suddenly I was so unhappy, and I realized I was back in my problems,” he explains. “I was back in my heartbreak. And suddenly I thought to myself, you felt so good when you were being Andy cause you were free from yourself.” He describes passing through a period of “absolute” confusion and disappointment before realizing that he was inhabiting his own personality in much that same way that he had inhabited Andy’s. His religion, nationality, career ambitions, and family history were accidental structures that just as soon could’ve been given to someone else, and was a kind of “story” he had been telling himself. But “he” didn’t really exist at all.
In discussing the extinction of his ego and a “manifestation” of pure consciousness, it’s clear that Carrey’s awakening lands him somewhere between Buddhism and New Age spirituality.
But Carrey is also, by his own admission, fascinated by the figure of Christ. In the film, he compares Andy’s wrestling theatrics to Christ’s bread of life discourse. “He just was on his own wavelength, and you were either going to join or you weren’t…It was like when Jesus said, ‘Eat my body and drink my blood.’ It’s a way to weed out the crowd. Those people who don’t see anything past the literal, they don’t bother to look for the absurd truth behind it, he’s not interested in them.” In a video titled “I Needed Color,” Carrey talks about his desire to capture the “electric” energy of Jesus and the radical forgiveness of “Christ consciousness” through painting. And in another viral video from the summer, Carrey talks about the figure of Jesus while addressing Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program founded by a Jesuit priest. “Ultimately, I believe that suffering leads to salvation,” he says. “You’ve made the decision to walk through the gate of forgiveness to grace, just as Christ did on the cross. He suffered terribly and he was broken by it to the point of doubt and a feeling of absolute abandonment, which all of you have felt. And then there was a decision to be made, and the decision was to look upon the people who were causing that suffering, or the situation that was causing that suffering, with compassion and with forgiveness. And that’s what’s opens the gates of heaven for all of us.”
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, found areas of great consonance between his own tradition and that of the Zen masters. In both, he found an emphasis on an “emptying out” of the self, the acceptance of suffering and unknowing, and a calling to stillness, compassion, and peace. Carrey, who was raised Catholic (he talks about promising to pray the rosary in exchange for a new bike as a kid), seems to be making similar connections, but from the other direction. And it’s worth underscoring.
But it’s also worth asking: why isn’t Jim Carrey’s belief in Christ-consciousness just an intensified expression of the Christian belief in Christ, or vice-versa?
I think it comes back to this question of personality. Christ was not simply one great teacher among many. He didn’t offer his followers a philosophy or a spiritual path. He offered them himself. But to understand this self, we have to understand the particularities of history and religion that this person entered into and transformed. His identity as an Israelite, a Nazarene, a carpenter, and the son of Mary and Joseph aren’t accidents. They aren’t unnecessary personal details we have to brush aside to get at the message. The person is the message.
Personality is also the condition for the possibility of imitating that person’s radical love. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton writes:
Love desires personality; therefore love desires division. It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces, because they are living pieces. It is her instinct to say “little children love one another” rather than to tell one large person to love himself. This is the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and Christianity; that for the Buddhist or Theosophist personality is the fall of man, for the Christian it is the purpose of God, the whole point of his cosmic idea.
To know Love incarnate, there has to be a distinct Other to know; to really follow in his footsteps of love, there have to be distinct others to love.
It’s a fair assumption that when he looks at the religion of his youth, Carrey sees a human institution with walls and borders and rules (and the people who fail to live up to them). In other words, he probably sees a spiritual non-starter. This is unfortunate, because that institution has fostered a mountain of consciousness-expanding spirituality that lines up with the themes of his awakening. From Augustine to Merton, we find the theme of transfiguring the restless, worldly self that blocks the path to peace. Even in its philosophical searching—as in William Norris Clarke’s Person and Being or Bishop Robert Barron’s analysis of “the Christ-Mind” in The Priority of Christ—we find the theme of the mystical communion of love that permeates ordinary being and knowing. It’s all there.
But what finally differentiates the Mystical Body—what fuels its transformation of personality without discarding the reality of it altogether—is its faith in a person. In faith, we die to the ego for the sake of Christ. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). We are raised up again, more fully ourselves, through Christ. “It is no longer I who live,” Paul declares, “but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). And through Christ, we are not just called to love humanity from the angelic heights of consciousness, but like him, to rush with love where angels fear to tread: the particularly messy reality of particular people’s lives.
At the very end of the movie, Jim Carrey spontaneously imagines what it would mean to imitate Christ the way he imitated Andy Kaufman. “I wonder if I could do that with other people,” he says. “I wonder what would happen if I decided to just be Jesus.” Whether a playful postscript or the bubbling up of some deep longing, this thought leaves Jim Carrey suspended between his own spiritual awakening and Paul’s; between extinguishing all personality and giving everything to one person; between his admiration of Christ-consciousness and the transformation of Christian faith.
What would happen if he kept going? He might just find that his awakening has been gathered up into an adventure—and be well on his way to discovering who he really was all along.