As I think I’ve mentioned, eleventy times or more, I’m halfway through a level 1 improv class with Washington Improv Theater.
My interest in improv has little to do with wanting to join an improv group or be on stage, and is more about exploring improv as a spiritual and life practice. My friend Marthame Sanders and I will be exploring improv lessons specifically for congregations in a workshop, “The Yes-And Church,” at theNEXT Church Conference in Atlanta in a couple weeks. Marthame is a pastor and is connected with the improv community in Atlanta, so there will also be an improv show that’s open to everyone on Tuesday evening, February 23 at 7pm at the Village Theatre (2 minute walk from King Memorial MARTA Station).
As someone who hasn’t studied all that much improv, I was happy to leave this to the experts and sit comfortably in the audience. After all, I’m not in this to perform, right?
On the other hand, the spirit of NEXT Church is risk and play. And as the girls on Friends learned when they tried to sit in the back of a dance class, You don’t observe a dance class. You DANCE a dance class.
So… I will be joining these creative improvisers for at least part of the evening on the 23rd.
One of my life lessons is this: the hard thing is the easier thing.
I’ve written about this before, but the idea is that doing the harder thing often benefits you in the long run, because cutting corners almost always costs you more than just doing it well the first time.
Major disclaimer: the fact that this is a life lesson doesn’t mean I pull it off all that well. In fact, it’s the times I’ve gotten it wrong that drive home how true it is. It requires a major hacking of your brain to pull it off, because most of us will trade future misery for present comfort.
I really hate menu planning and grocery shopping, for example. It’s tedious, and for a family of five, unrelenting. Some weeks I just can’t face it. So I’ve blown off going to the store, which later forces me to cobble together a decent meal with, like, frozen pearl onions and ranch dressing. And guess what? That’s even harder, and makes us all grumpy. So I realize, once again, I should have just gone to the dang store.
The hard thing is the easier thing.
This axiom is especially true in areas of fitness and exercise. People wonder how I can get up early to run. Where do you get the discipline? they want to know. It’s a hard thing, getting up when the alarm clock has a 4 in it. I’ll admit that. But it’s sooooo much easier than trying to shoehorn in a run once I’m in a groove at work, or right before the kids get home, or after they’re in bed. That requires way more willpower than I have. I know it sounds crazy, but when I run early, it’s not because I’m disciplined. It’s because I’m lazy.
I’m currently facing the consequences of the easier thing. I lost 40 pounds a few years ago, then watched it creep up a bit and stay there. I was OK with that–my body seemed to be telling me where its ideal weight was. But now it’s crept up again, to the point that I don’t feel healthy. My clothes don’t fit as well. I’m sluggish when I run.
I know I’m fighting age here. But I also know I haven’t been mindful about what I eat, how much, and when. So I need to fire up MyFitnessPal again and see what happens.
Maintaining a weight loss is a very hard thing. Know what’s even harder? Losing it again. And that’s what I get to do. Sigh. Wish me luck.
Have you seen this dynamic at work in your life? Would love to hear about it.
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In the meantime, and to tide you over, here are a few articles that have captivated me lately:
It’s February 2, and I’ve got my annual hankering to watch Groundhog Day, one of my top ten favorite movies. Unfortunately it’s not available on Netflix Instant. Ah well. (By the way, what do we say about the experience of watching a movie over and over again… that’s about living the same day over and over again? Deeeeep.)
I’m at a conference this week with other pastors who received Pastoral Study Grants from the Louisville Institute. As some of you know, I’m studying improvisation as a practice for life and spiritual formation. You can read a lot about my interest in improv at this blog.
My project will be threefold:
taking improv classes in the DC area and weekly intensives at Second City in Chicago this summer and summer 2017. I’m doing this not because I want to be an improv performer–I really don’t–but because I’m interested in how improv provides a set of tools for creative, intuitive, and wholehearted living. I’ve taken a handful of improv workshops over the years, but I’m glad to dive into more intensive study and play. (It’s hard. I feel like I’m all thumbs. And I’m having a blast.)
interviewing people who use improvisation in their field of work: actors, engineers, jazz musicians, entrepreneurs, doctors and nurses, parents, etc. I’ll also be interviewing various people who’ve had to improvise in their daily lives when things didn’t go according to “the plan,” whether in large or small ways. How have people said “Yes And” in difficult circumstances, and what can we learn?
putting together these stories for broader consumption. I keep hearing good things about this new-fangled podcasting technology, so I’ll be jumping on board with that.
So on this Groundhog Day, I’ve been thinking about improv. Meanwhile, people have been posting clips and images from the movie on social media. (Don’t drive angry!)
And I’m realizing that the movie Groundhog Day is really a movie about improvising your life. (No coincidence that director Harold Ramis and star Bill Murray are alumnia of Second City.)
It’s always February 2. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
Here are a few thoughts:
You can try to block reality… for a while. Phil lives in denial for a while, not quite accepting his reality. He tries to figure out an escape–remember all the attempted suicides? This is a very dark period for him, though there are moments of breakthrough too:
But then you learn to accept. Ultimately Phil accepts that he’s stuck in February 2 and he starts to have fun with it. Accepting something isn’t the same as liking it, by the way. He makes the best of a bad situation.
The gift comes in learning to embrace–to “Yes-and.” Phil lives life as fully as he can. He learns to play the piano, improving each day. He befriends a homeless man and administers a well-timed Heimlich maneuver to the town mayor.
Structure isn’t the enemy of improv. It’s essential. Phil understands the rules that govern his reality (even if he doesn’t understand why it’s happening–much like our own lives, eh?). And with this understanding he’s able to make his way as best he can.
At the same time, it’s usually a mistake to try and force things. Planning and preparation are fine and often necessary. But there’s something to be said for learning to go with the flow. Remember that scene in which Phil tries to manufacture the perfect day with Rita? The previous day was effortless and fun, so he tries to hit all the same marks in order to recreate it: having a snowball fight, talking about all the same topics. But it becomes strained and creepy:
Improv, like a life well-lived, is other-focused. I’m learning that good improvisers don’t go for the cheap laugh or the best lines. Good improvisers understand that their job is to support their fellow players on stage and help them to shine. Phil learns to love the people of Punxsutawney, especially Rita. He gives himself to their happiness and welfare. And only when he reaches this level of compassion is he allowed to get off the hamster wheel (groundhog wheel?) and experience February 3 at last.
So perhaps in addition to February 2 being Groundhog Day, it can also be Improv Day.
It’s always your life. And there’s nothing you can do about it. But that’s OK.
It can even be great.
Last week I caught Tom Ashbrook’s show On Point (via podcast). He was talking about the so-called “boutique fitness” trend—exercise classes that promise not only a hard workout but also strong community, and in some cases spiritual enlightenment. The panelists discussedSoul Cycle, CrossFit and other fitness fads.
Unfortunately, the cost of these classes got conflated with the larger issue of spiritual impact. Many of these programs are very expensive and exclusive. People can spend thousands of dollars a year on these classes, and many listeners (and commenters) criticized this trend as yet another symptom of the narcissism run rampant in our culture. I agree, it seems icky to spend THAT much money on a fitness-related pursuit. Especially since there’s nothing inherently costly about many of these programs. A barre class, for example, requires a trained instructor, a room, and a couple of barres. A listener called in from Nashville who takes similar courses at her local rec center for three bucks a class.
That said, I live in an expensive area of the country, with lots of friends who belong to gyms and yoga studios, and I’m sure the price tag would make people balk who live in cities with a lower cost of living. I go to the relatively low-rent Fairfax County RECenters, which don’t require a monthly fee, but I’m sure people could look sideways at the money I spend on races and running gear. The economic thing is relative. But I don’t agree with the sentiment that “It’s their money so who cares?” What we spend money on as a culture says something about our values, and it’s all worth examining.
But setting aside the economics of these classes,the discussion of spiritual impact and community was a good one. I ran for many years before I joined a running group, and it’s brought so much to my life, I sometimes kick myself for waiting as long as I did. (Kicking oneself isn’t good cross-training, by the way.)
A few people brought up the physical, mental and spiritual boost you get from working out—the runners’ high, if you will. It got me thinking about my current religious tradition (Presbyterian). At least here in the U.S., we’re by and large a reserved bunch in worship. We sing hymns and pray silently and read creeds in unison. I’d say our worship strives to be joyfully reverent, but ours is not an ecstatic, charismatic tradition. Yet perhaps there’s something in the human psyche that craves catharsis. Are people feeling drawn to extreme sports and communal workout experiences because we want a safe, socially-sanctioned way to experience these big feelings together? I don’t know.
Many of the panelists mentioned how devoted people are to things like CrossFit and SoulCycle, even calling their devotion “religious.” But there are (still) things religion provides that these other things do not. A story, for one—a larger narrative in which to place yourself. An ethical sense of the world. A sense of service. A connection to something larger than yourself. Now, my running friends and I get into some deep stuff while we’re pounding out the miles. We share inspirational stories. There’s a sense of connection to the spirit of the sport. But there’s not a larger common mythology guiding our lives.
On the other hand, I know I’ve been slower to find a church home for our family because I get many spiritual needs met through my running community (which I connect with online and in person). Not all spiritual needs, but many:
Accountability: What gets me out of bed in the 4:00 hour on a cold morning is knowing other people will be waiting for me. But it’s not just running accountability–we check up on one another, ask about our families, chide one another when we’re not taking care of ourselves, etc.
Vulnerability: There’s nothing quite like putting your body through its paces while other people are around. I know folks who’ve gotten sick on group runs, or had a bathroom emergency and needed help from a fellow runner. A good race, or a bad one, brings up big unbidden feelings. Do our religious communities give us opportunities to be vulnerable with one another in similar ways? How?
Mentorship: I’m a devoted middle-of-the-packer when it comes to running, and I have a lot to learn from people who’ve been at this longer (and who are more accomplished). I also think I have something to offer people who are new at this. How well do religious communities do the official and unofficial mentorship thing?
Service: This is something most religious communities do well, but you can find plenty of opportunities to give back apart from the church. The running group I’m in does canned food drives, coat drives and the like. Religious communities also often (but not always) engage the larger issues of justice that community groups may not.
Finally, the show featured a Harvard Divinity School student named Angie Thurston who co-wrote a paper called How We Gather. The paper argues that people are finding spiritual fulfillment in alternate forms of community, from Harry Potter fan groups to running groups. The church would do well to pay attention to this. I’m looking forward to delving into this paper.
Does exercise provide a spiritual outlet for you? How about community? What’s your experience?