Sunday, June 20, 2010

Encountering The Big Shaggy

Having been without full time work for two years now, I found reading Bob Herbert’s New York Times
June 8th column, ‘A Very Deep Hole’, depressing.  Herbert maintains,  “…the No. 1 problem facing the U.S. continues to fester, and that problem is unemployment.”   No argument here.  It is small comfort to learn that I am but one of 15 million Americans out of work, that many of my fellow unemployed have been jobless for six months or more, and that recent college graduates are taking on jobs requiring only a high school education.  Finally, for me, a career teacher, the coup de grace.  “Teachers are facing the worst employment market since the Depression.”   In short, things are bleak.  Knowing that the knot in my stomach is somehow tied to 15 million other Americans only serves to heighten my anxiety.

On the same day, on the other side of the page (Herbert appropriately the column on the left of the page and David Brooks the column on the right) Brooks began his column, History for Dollars, with “When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting.”  He goes on to describe the decline in the study of humanities in our colleges and universities.  His column is, however, a defense of the liberal arts.  Brooks writes:  “Over the past century or so, people have built various systems to help them understand human behavior; economics, political science, game theory and evolutionary psychology.  These systems are useful in many circumstances.  But none completely explain behavior because deep down people have passions and drives that don’t lend themselves to systemic modeling.  They have yearnings and fears that reside in an inner beast you could call The Big Shaggy.”  Brooks goes on to describe The Big Shaggy at work in the hubris of politicians who succumb to romantic indulgence, or “when self-destructive overconfidence overtakes oil engineers in the gulf, when go-go enthusiasm intoxicates bankers or when bone-chilling distrust grips politics.”  There is also a tender side to this beast, Brooks points out, that can bring out the best in us: determination, grace, courage, selflessness, to name a few.  Technical knowledge, says Brooks, stops at the outer edge and remains insufficient to fully comprehend and explain The Big Shaggy. 

Brooks concludes, “But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech.  These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

“It’s probably dangerous to enter exclusively into this realm and risk being caught in a cloister, removed from the market and its accountability.  But doesn’t it make sense to spend some time in the company of these languages – learning to feel different emotions, rehearsing different passions, experiencing different sacred rituals and learning to see in different ways?”

In the most basic way, as a theater teacher and director, I’ve made my living as a storyteller.  I delight in being told, dreaming about, reshaping and retelling the tales that make our culture; tales that outlive their tellers, tales that wrestle with The Bit Shaggy.  I’ve spent much of my time helping adolescents learn to decode, compose, illuminate and narrate these tales.  Trying to get my students to see in different ways. 

I kept a quote from Peter Brook on the wall of my office and shared it with my students:  “In everyday life, ‘if’ is a fiction, in the theatre ‘if’ is an experiment.  In everyday life, ‘if’ is an evasion, in the theater ‘if’ is the truth.  When we are persuaded to believe in this truth, then the theatre and life are one.  This is a high aim.  It sounds like hard work.  To play needs much work.  But when we experience the work as play, then it is not work any more.  A play is play.”

In an Opinion Online piece for The New York Times Stuart Brown wrote:  “ reinvigorates not because it is down time, but because it gets us in touch with our core selves and the joy of life. 

“The differences in levels of playfulness when adulthood arrives validates this importance.  Play-deprived adults are often rigid, humorless, inflexible and closed to trying out new options.  Playfulness enhances the capacity to innovate, adapt and master changing circumstances.”   Brown’s book, PLAY, How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul might be thought of as a kind of guide to encountering The Big Shaggy.

 I feel as if I’m one of 15 million out of work Americans trying to compose something for the middle of the page, smack between Herbert’s and Brooks’ columns.  Trying to create the next work in our lives.  In my case, devoted to encounters with the Big Shaggy, and tenaciously faithful to the notion that when the going gets tough, the tough get to playing.


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