In years past, a passage by Vicki Noble, a healer of sorts, really had struck a chord with me. It had to do with her approach to cancer. In the passage, she said that she didn’t focus so much on attacking the offending cells. Instead, her energies were trained on awakening, enlivening and empowering the healthy cells. She used this as a metaphor for engaging in the work of building peace in communities and the world at large.
This is something that comes to my mind a lot in the research and writing that I do. Of course, my lens makes me see improv as a hammer that can hit any social skill/social awareness nail. That aside, I’ve been considering what are the particular notions that we play with in improv that can really help enliven individuals to being more courageous and effective. That word “courageous” is what led me to think of heroes and heroism. There is a lot of great work out there on these subjects. Instantly, my mind goes to the great work of Joseph Campbell and all of the folks who have been inspired by and built on his work. I’m spending some time now becoming more familiar with his canon, but before I jumped into that, I wanted to experiment a little with the notion in a workshop.
Recently, I did a pro-bono workshop for the local Comedysportz cast focused on discovering what kind of hero people are and having them more fully engage in an active exploration of what that could mean for their lives. I based it on an anthropology article that I had blogged about before.
Part of the workshop involved people telling stories of heroic things that they’ve done in life; not so much as a chance to brag as much as a way to help them see their own potential for heroism. This had an interesting effect on many of the people in the workshop. One participant remarked that it was so different from general conversation in life for her because she rarely spoke of herself in terms of being heroic. She felt that it was rare in her circle that people would make such an accounting of their helpful or heroic deeds.
Another colleague of mine actually applies similar work through her job at FEMA. I had the pleasure of connecting with Mary Tyszkiewicz and got to see her speak about her own brainchild called Heroic Improvisation. Soon after her talk, she was hired on by FEMA to help realize some of their new goals of creating teams of volunteer first responders using these techniques.
My mind wanders on how to expand this work to bolster the ‘healthy cells’ that walk around us every day because I believe we could all use reminders that we are capable of being remarkable in terms of helping one another. This seems important when we appear to live in times where partisan tensions and income inequality reign supreme. In the wake of the tragedy of the Boston Marathon, it was heartening to see that most of the people that walk around us every day are primed to be heroes when circumstances call. My big hope is that those heroic qualities will filter up the chain of power in time to deal with the impending challenges of our new millennium.
A particular quote always crops up in my mind in regards to what I would consider true heroism in the human scheme. It was written by Shadi Fader in the “Fool” edition of the magazine Parabola (2001):
“A fool’s strength lies in the very qualities that separate him from the conventional image of the heroic: humility and the willingness to support others rather than seeking power or glory directly”
That quote was in reference to the journey of Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings. On that fictional journey, there was no promised reward, but it was undertaken all the same because the alternative was darkness and suffering. Our world could definitely be helped by asking that question more often: Will this result in more suffering for us all?
If the answer is ‘yes’ to the suffering of the many, and one acts to stop or avoid that outcome; that is a hero. If one acts to advance or support that outcome to cause the suffering of many; that is a villain. The unfortunate part of these dilemmas in the real world is that these situations are rarely that black and white, but with more data, the issues can be nailed down to which shade of grey they may be.
In the world of improvised theater, everything emerges from shades of grey to become black and white, and this happens through the heroic process of being present, listening, agreeing and appreciating ideas, and supporting our fellows. It’s a process that is in play in every healthy community. In my mind, it is our default setting when we are not threatened. Improv training can help us retain our composure when the going gets rough and remember these ideals in a crisis. It can bolster the healthy cells against the cancer of fear and doubt. One more reason to keep spreading the ideas of improvisation to the world…to fill it with heroes. Villains beware!!