As spring emerges, and figs (somewhere) begin to ripen on the vine, the time for doing and acting is upon us. My last blog post was about feeling and honoring our feelings. In addition to feeling and honoring, as humans, we need to live in the world and contribute to the life around us.
But sometimes taking action can feel like pulling teeth. Life (especially in our era) hands us so many possibilities that we can feel overwhelmed and powerless. How do we know how to spend our time, our energy, our money? How do we know what hobbies to pursue, what investments are going to be fruitful, what books to read, or who to love? The amount of choices that we have on a daily basis, but also over the course of our lives, can paralyze us and make us want to check out. If you’ve read Sylvia Plath, or watched Master of None, you might remember this quote:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” –Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
In a life where figs are constantly budding, ripening, and then falling at our feet, improv comedy has been one of my greatest teachers for helping me sort through the huge tree of choice. Improv has taught me to remember the importance of committing to my choices, listening, acting, being vulnerable, having fun, and being present.
Commitment. Improv encourages us to make strong choices—to become a character, to exaggerate a trait, to say that seemingly weird non-sequitur thing about blow up dolls that made sense in our heads. When we back away from what we put on the stage because of anxiety or fear of imperfection, we confuse our partners and the audience. We deny what we had established earlier, or don’t acknowledge some subtle and wonderful mannerism in our partners. We also potentially squelch a moment that could have been relatable, interesting, touching or funny. In our lives, when we back our instincts about what to do and be, we squelch opportunities to connect and be ourselves. We stay in that toxic job or friendship because we’re afraid to act; we ignore our inner stirrings because they seem confusing, strange, or ask us to make difficult choices. But improv shows us that committing—with the guidance of our true feelings—is what allows life to move forward.
Listening. Improv teaches us to listen, not only to the content our partners and the audiences are putting out, but also to ourselves. In order to listen, we have to feel our own bodies while we observe our partner’s body language and hear what she’s saying. If we are stuck in our own heads and ignoring what’s going on around us, we can’t be present for a moment or a scene. On stage, our partner will be making a cake while we are trying to facilitate a birth. In life, our kid may be trying to tell us he’s being bullied by beating up his brother. We may be having an affair because we haven’t listened to how lonely we are in our relationship. Sometimes we can’t hear our son because our anxieties about him living a lonely life are taking over, or because we begin to focus on blaming ourselves for his predicament. Or maybe listening to our own needs feels too painful. But the truth is that, if we don’t listen, we miss a chance to tend to those around us. Our son’s needs will go ignored, we will keep hurting others, and we will stay stuck. When we begin to listen, however, we open up the door to being the best versions of ourselves.
Being in the world with others. Before we even have the chance to respond, we have to have something to respond to. Improv encourages us to be in the game in the first place. If we sit on the sidelines, we won’t get to play, and the show, activity or scene will end without us. If we choose to check out from life—by drinking constantly, zoning out in front of the TV, checking our phones—it will end before we feel we’ve had the chance to play. And there’s no way to have fun or to enjoy our lives if aren’t present in them.
Being vulnerable. The best way to invite others to share and be vulnerable with us is first to be vulnerable with them. When we are open, honest and true to ourselves, we invite others to be vulnerable with us as well. And then we learn that we aren’t alone in all of the things that make us human. Everyone is experiencing this scene, this life, in a similar way. That’s the only reason it even has the potential to be funny or meaningful.
Being Present. Lastly, we can’t respond, be authentic, have fun, or be vulnerable if we aren’t first present. This moment is a fig on the vine. It is withering and dying before our eyes. If we don’t grasp it and live in it fully, we will lose it.
In Harold and Maude, Maude says to a lonely Harold: “A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead, really. They’re just backing away from life. Reach out. Take a chance. Get hurt even. But play as well as you can….Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room.’—Harold and Maude
In improv and in life, we inevitably get hurt. But at the end of the show, we have something to talk about because we have touched those around us, we have created something, and we have related to others. We see that when we reach for a fig, we allow others to bud and bloom in its place.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Denver, Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach is designed to foster a sense of strength, understanding, and joy. Her expertise focuses on individual counseling with adults and adolescents suffering from depression, anxiety, self-esteem and identity issues, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.