For Goodness’ Sake

In improv this week I had an epiphany. It was about patterns. My group has been doing this exercise outside each of our weekly practice sessions where we manufacture dozens of scene ideas and games all by our lonesome, inspired by material we pull from our dreams. It amounts to a kind of creative-brain calisthenics. Looking at all of our ideas side by side in Monday’s meeting, it was wildly, suddenly easy to see what kind of funny (or character, or setting, or style) the different members of my team are drawn to. We made a big, beautiful brain map full of things we all could see in one another but hadn’t been able to track in ourselves.

Like, I now realize I get a real kick out of scenes where one person has an inappropriate sense of decorum for the occasion – e.g, two frat brothers go shopping for party booze and one gets carried away with making the event ‘classy,’ or a funeral director is heartlessly preoccupied with the flower arrangements… (these were way funnier in person, I promise). What hit home in the sudden noticing was this hard truth: I am predictable. And then I got to thinking about my friends and loved ones, and the things I see in them that they might not see in themselves because it’s a quite difficult thing to take deep stock of, one’s patterns, one’s unique means of moving through the world. Think of those stories your dear ones tell over and over again in mixed company, and always as if no one has heard them before; you know these by heart. Now I’m not talking about what we love and hate openly, or how we wear our hair, the things we make a conscious point of broadcasting to the world…I’m referring to the concept that there are parts of us (so baldly obvious once named!) that we don’t – can’t? – go around realizing on the reg. Small visible facts it takes an external factor to point out. The trees in the forest. And learning the limits and importance of this project, this project of knowing oneself, this trait we refer to and exalt as being “self-aware.”

I now ask you to think about self-discovery, as a project and a buzzword. Go with me here: as far as you’re concerned, you are always there, right? You’re unlike a forming island or a brand new star, you’re more like the Mariana Trench or Jupiter because you’re a contained body with mysteries so called only because humans aren’t yet equipped to explain your crooked bits yet. Psychiatry is scary because still so little is known about why EST works, or Prozac, or any number of anti-psychotics. The things you think you learn about yourself as you age, such is not the manufacturing of new material, you’re not getting wider or bigger as you grow – you’re rather carving out room and space, you’re opening up chambers that were always filled with potential. There’s no new matter, anywhere. Is this bad science or an argument for predetermined fate? What it is is a tad sloppy. Hey, world! Look! That’s one of my patterns: sometimes, I’m a little sloppy. I am aware of this now. A shiny gold medal for me!

If uncovering the terrain in us that is always just sub-surface is, say, literature or art or acting school, psychology, math, any number of different words for the practical and intelligent approach to being alive, I get to thinking about the tools we all use to get more “self-aware.” Education, surely. Contextualizing ourselves as part of a larger body – family, country, universe. It’s at this point I decide that being self-aware is always and forever connected to empathy, and so, goodness. Good people are people who realize life “while they’re in it, every every minute,” right? Those people are doing it right and wasting less time because they understand fundamentally that they’re not alone. Whereas I can say that but not believe it, some days. When you and I don’t believe it we simmer in solipsistic self-abuse that is useless to all. So, start to call self-awareness a project. It’s the project.

In improv, self-awareness presents a pretty low-stakes scenario, a tidy microcosm. (My scenes are always and without fail hilarious.) But take Julian Barnes’ recent tour de force, The Sense of An Ending. This book – spoiler alert – is about a man forced to reconcile his idea of himself with the bona fide effects of his life. Turns out, at sixty something, this man who thinks he’s led an entirely mild-mannered and inoffensive existence must own up to having ruined another person’s life – another person he didn’t even realize he’d affected. And he’s bewildered, our guy, to realize he’s either repressed or warped in retrospect a very pertinent memory. In other words – worst case scenario – our hero has to realize he’s just not as good a man as he ever thought he was. His picture of himself in the world is completely at odds with his actual, bona fide self in the world. This makes him lazy. This makes him flawed.

The lesson here – which me and my mother decided on during a very agitated phone-in book club – was that people have to own up to the pain they can exert. Because we humans can hurt people, and we can not realize it while it’s happening or even just afterward, but that doesn’t make it okay. Keeping tally: the self-aware, the empathetic, the good, these people will pause to accept and contemplate the awful truths in their cells, their patterns and problems. And why? Because that’s part of their job.

So Gemma and Brittany go to talk politics and boys at Ninth Ward on Monday night. The idea of moral fortitude is presented in this context via the current rift between Republican and Democratic politicians (as ya do). We decide again that “goodness,” is a quality contingent on self-awareness, and specifically in a democratic world, self-awareness is to do with empathy (for at least half of understanding oneself is understanding how and when one is different from other people). Gemma said (paraphrased) “I believe I am a fundamentally better person than Paul Ryan, not because my opinion on how to lead the country is so different from his, but rather because he has devoted his life to making legislation that dictates what I can and cannot do with my body. I like to think I’d never do that. I may disagree with your doing certain things, whoever you are, but I like to think I wouldn’t punish you or restrict your ability to do those things just because I disagree.”

Of course, pro-lifers tend to believe abortion is murder (and perhaps such “logic” makes the punitive approach to murderers a little more sensible), but a lot of those same people believe that murderers should die for their actions. Hammurabbi’s code had a shit ton of flaws, we scarcely need to remember. Anyways, I digress.

So to be a fully good person one should be self aware (as opposed to selfish, of a vacuum); to be self aware one has to have at least a base awareness of other people on the planet and their rights, interests, motivations, and ways they are entitled to pursue personal happiness. This becomes a rally for the liberal mind. To zoom backward into the maybe trivial, I think about men and women and women and men and dating in NYC 2012. I think about me.

One such a judgment gaff on the man-front has been happening to me for a few weeks against all the good advice of those I trust most, and it finally culminated in – to make a tedious story small – a very whiny Monday and some tears and a punched-feeling ego. What made me the maddest about the whole scenario was that the “man” in question kept trying to insist he was a great guy, or a harmless guy, a guy with the best of intentions, all while he was really just doing moral gymnastics to make hurting my feelings alright in his mind. I argue here that such cowardice makes a person not-so-hot. It’s trivial, sure, it is no life-ruining business, this, still… it’s something to notice. I start to see how I’ve hurt people, just by being foolish or not quite awake enough. Double-crossing prior pain (soon, people will say this, you’ll see!) — between you me and the lamppost, I am also capable of being cruel. In twelve step programs, you have to go back and try to repair those bridges burned. Sometimes you don’t get the chance. Sometimes things fall apart, and guess what? Part of dealing with it like an adult human is seeing the cracks in the foundation and carrying on with the realization that you’re capable of such damage. Youch. This is the only way history doesn’t repeat itself, after all: when we realize that gross horrors have occurred for and by our group’s hands, and we are the ones responsible. In part, in whole, in some big way.

ACCORDING TO GEMMA, the man who founded Rhode Island was a puritannical nutbag, but people flocked to Rhode Island at its inception because this particular puritannical nutbag believed in religious freedom. He agreed with very few people about how much fun humans should have and when they should have it, but he defended to his core the right to argue about it – the right that this country was built on (see Barack Obama’s acceptance speech!). So as you’re growing up and going out and doing activities, as you’re bumbling merrily along, I urge you all to proceed with oodles of perspective and the sense of an ending imminent one day. The sense of an ending that reflects your time alive as not a thing in a vacuum, as contingent on your sense of empathy, as contingent on your sense of what you do to the people around you. Tricky bits to notice sometimes, your patterns (I use too many commas, I pick the wrong men)…do the work. It’ll pay off in karma, methinks.

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