Tag Archives: science

Improv: It’s Not Just for Comedy Anymore

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(News flash: it never was.)

What happens when you give scientists improv lessons?

That’s what New York’s Stony Brook University is trying to figure out through Improvisation for Scientists, a class spearheaded by a team of folks including actor Alan Alda.

They aren’t trying to find the next Amy Poehler. Instead the goal is to teach a mindset and a series of communication skills to budding STEM and medical students. Alda tells about a science student whose perspective shifted as a result of the class. Rather than looking at a set of data and feeling it was his job to make sense of it–to control it by explaining it–he “lets the data talk to him.” Just as a partner on stage speaks to you, and it’s your job to pay attention so you can respond.

Improv is a process of discovery, much like the pursuit of scientific knowledge itself. But most of life is an improvisation, I’m convinced.

In fact, I’m very grateful to have received a grant from the Louisville Institute to explore this topic. I’ll be taking improv classes, here in DC and in Chicago at Second City, and I’ll be interviewing people for a podcast that will roll out next year. Stay tuned for more on that work!

I’ve already studied and written a bit about improv, and have led events on improv and the spiritual life. Sometimes people balk at the topic because they think my goal is to get people up on stage, or to be funny on command. That’s not it at all. 

As an example, a medical student in the Stony Brook program used his improv training from a game called ‘Mirror Exercise’ to better communicate with a patient:

He had to tell her that her cancer had metastasized and she had only two weeks left to live. He was terrified going into the conversation.

At first the woman had no reaction at all to the news. He had the feeling she didn’t understand what was happening, so he decided to use some of his improv training.

“He said, ‘I sat down with her and we held hands. … I told her in the simplest possible way what was happening. I didn’t use any three-syllable words. I didn’t use the word ‘metastasis,’ I didn’t use the word ‘prognosis.’ I just tried to be simple and slow because I knew that there was a pacing to the way that you could hear this information.’ And he said ‘For the first time, the woman started to cry.’ And when she cried, it made him cry, and then when he cried she had a question,” [the student] says. “He said, ‘What I felt happened was that I was able to help her understand how to understand the end of her life. And she was able to help me understand how to be a better doctor.’”

Recently I was talking to a woman in charge of programming for a congregation–we’re trying to figure out whether I might come and lead some events there. I was explaining this improv stuff and launched into my standard speech about how improv isn’t about performance for me–it’s about learning to listen to your intuition, to take risks, to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Suddenly the woman said, “Oh, I know exactly what you’re talking about.” She told me about a young woman in her life who struggles with OCD. Her doctor “prescribed” improv lessons as one aspect of her treatment and it’s had a tremendous positive impact.

This is powerful stuff, folks.

And for the record: it scares me. It scares me because it’s powerful, and because it’s fundamentally out of my control. I joke sometimes that when I write the book on this it’ll be called Improv for Control Freaks, because that’s where I live and where a lot of us live.

For me, improv is wrapped up in the spiritual practice of letting go.

I can’t wait.

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Reminder: Sign up to receive Gate of the Year, a free workbook/playbook to help you do a review of 2015 and set intentions and visions for 2016. Learn more here. Sign up here.

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Image: 24h Contact Improvisation Jam by David Olivari through Flickr, Creative Commons License.

Link Love: Rosetta Celebration Edition

Congratulations to everyone involved with the Philae probe! There have been some bumps and snafus with the landing, but that doesn’t diminish the achievement: a human-made object has made physical contact with a comet for the first time ever.

Say what you will about the Internet—and there’s plenty to critique—but it’s a wonderful tool for cultivating awe and wonder. Of course, there’s the ability to watch things like the Rosetta mission unfold in real time. But I’m a sucker for a good space video. Here are a few of my favorites.

(These two videos have soundtracks that detract, in my opinion—watch with the volume turned down, or put on your favorite musical accompaniment.)

Then there’s Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining the “cosmic calendar”: the entire timeline of the universe, mapped to one year on the Gregorian calendar. I can’t find a video that encapsulates the whole thing; here’s a short video that outlines the concept, plus a partial transcript. Spoiler alert: every person we’ve ever heard of occupies the last 14 seconds of the year.

And here’s one I just discovered this week—a page in which you can scroll to view composite photos from the International Space Station. Don’t miss the set of aurora borealis images.

I’m awed by that thin membrane of atmosphere that makes all of life possible:

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What’s your favorite image, page or video that helps you cultivate awe?

On the Edge of Ignorance

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“Science works on the frontier between knowledge and ignorance. We’re not afraid to admit what we don’t know – there’s no shame in that. The only shame is to pretend that we have all the answers.”

-Neil deGrasse Tyson, on the stunning new series Cosmos

Any theologian worth her salt works on that frontier as well.

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My blog practice during Lent is to Rest in the Words of Others. Interested in original content? I will be writing short reflections each week on my email list

Religion, Improv, and Why Penn Jillette Gets It Wrong Again

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From the Improvised Life, one of my favorite blogs.

I’ll be at Fondren Presbyterian Church (Jackson, Mississippi) at the end of July for four nights of study around the topic “The Improvising God: God’s Work in an Imperfect World”. I’ve been preparing these presentations for several weeks, and I’m feeling both excited and daunted to explore issues of God’s providence, God’s “will,” and the classic question of why bad things happen to good people. You know, little things like that.

I’m captivated by this idea of life as improvisation, and God as an improviser. As I read the Bible, and as I try to discern the Spirit at work in a world that is full of suffering and even cruelty, I don’t see things being governed by some divine plan from the foundations of the world. Purpose, maybe, but not plan. Rather, I see creativity within constraints; I see adaptation and fluidity. I see responsiveness. (Yes, I know the classic answer: God has a plan; we just can’t see it. I can’t get there. The misery is too great. As I read today, “There is more undeserved suffering in the world than faith can contain.”)

As I wrote recently:

Things happen [in life] that you didn’t anticipate, and you have to adjust. With luck and grace, you “yes-and” the thing, accepting and building on whatever gets thrown at you. Accepting something doesn’t mean you have to like it, by the way. But a spirit of improvisation leads us to be curious, to ask, “Well, OK. Now what?”

We are made in the image of God, and God is a master of improv. This I believe. I don’t know what that means when stacked up against sturdy preacherly words like eternal, immutable, absolute, all-knowing, perfect. I just know that when I look at the sacred texts I see a God who iterates. Who pivots. Who encounters the world as it is, not as God planned it to be. Who yes-ands all over the place.

One place where I see yes-and: the book of Exodus. Remember, “exodus” literally means “a way out.” Not THE way out. I like the idea that God might have liberated the people of Israel in any of a hundred different ways, but thought, “Hey, this will do: Moses… Ever-escalating plagues… Passage through the Sea… Forty years of kvetching. Bring it.” That’s a creative and interesting deity. I’m down with that God—way more than a God who wrote down everything that was going to be, hit Save on Microsoft Word and then commenced the Big Bang.

I’m still testing this stuff out, and the folks in Jackson will help me build and refine these ideas. (Or they will brand me a heretic, but eh, it wouldn’t be the first time.) The presentations will explore some of this yes-and work. Jurgen Moltmann meets Tina Fey. Samuel Wells’s book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics has been very helpful as I prepare.

Anyway, what does all this have to do with poor Penn Jillette, magician and atheist extraordinaire? (I’ve gotten on his case before, the big lug.) In my reading today, I ran across this quote from Jillette, who wrote in his first book, God, No!:

If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

As I think about the possibilities of an improvising God and an improvising church, I think Jillette is both wrong, and right but missing the point.

Wrong, because when you boil them down, there’s a startling symmetry to the basic message of many of the world’s religions and faith traditions.

Right and missing the point, because of course they’d be different, but so what? That’s not a bug, that’s a feature. Religion, God-talk, and philosophy are a response to the world we inhabit—a frame for our experience of both ourselves and that which is beyond ourselves. Religion is both the lens, and the thing being scrutinized through the lens. Taking the Exodus story as an example: God, or the Universe, or the Great Whatever, would not carry out the work of liberation the exact same way, because that world would not be the same. (And how boring a God would be who behaves the exact same way in every case!)

In a world full of rich possibilities—a world of creativity and improvisation—our sacred stories would not be created the same way again. But that doesn’t make those stories any less valid as illuminations of deep truth.

Friday Link Love

Can you believe this is my 108th Link Love? That’s about 2 years of collecting bits and pieces of stuff. Like a magpie. I should probably go on hiatus at some point. Don’t want to get stuck in a rut. Maybe this summer.

In the meantime… here we go!

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Modern Art Desserts — Brain Pickings

This is from a few weeks ago–I’ve been saving it.

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Rothko.

More at the link.

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Perfectionism as Paralysis — David Foster Wallace

Courtesy of The Dish and a good adjunct to my post about perfectionism and failure the other day, an animated clip of DFW talking in 1996 about perfectionism, ambition… and tennis:

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The Good Kind of Crazy — David Lose

After filling me in on some of the latest and greatest ideas she’s had about the church she leads, she stopped and said, “You know, you’re about the only person I know who doesn’t think I’m crazy when I talk this way.”

“Actually,” I replied with a smile, “I think you’re crazy too. But the church needs crazy right now.”

…My friend is perceived as a little crazy. She’s not content with the same old thing, only better. She wants something new. So she has the youth of her church lead worship and participate in the sermon. She doesn’t do confirmation anymore, but instead finds ways to gather her youth around conversations about faith, life, and life lived faithfully. And this summer they’re not singing hymns at her church, but pop songs. And talking about popular YouTube videos. And other crazy stuff.

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On that note… maybe this is an example of the good kind of crazy, albeit from another era:

100 Years Later, a Time Capsule is Opened — Yahoo! News

The First Lutheran Church of Oklahoma City dug up and opened its Century Chest, a time capsule that was buried under the church 100 years ago.

The artifacts inside the copper chest were remarkably well intact. Credit for that goes to the church’s Ladies Aide Society, the group that buried the capsule a century ago. The group buried the chest in double concrete walls and under 12 inches of concrete, according to Fox News.

As my friend Alex Hendrickson said, “Varsity level church ladies.” Seriously.

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For a Student of Theology, Poetry Reverberates — NPR

My favorite class in seminary was The Preacher and the Poet, so Robert sent this to me with the subject line “MaryAnn bait.”

I read a lot of theology, both for my degree and for my professional track, and sometimes I think poetry, whether or not it’s explicitly religious, is one of the best modes that theology, or talking about God, can take. … Poetry is a form where the language is under so much pressure, and that can really bring about these wonderful surprises and insights in our ways of talking about God or thinking about our faith.

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The Best Lesson My Kids Ever Taught Me — Practicing Families

The author describes the experience of having a newborn and always having to think about the next thing. Ohhhh yeah. That kind of extreme time maximization is part of what led us to Sabbath, when we can turn off (or at least mute) those endless calculations:

I was always planning ahead for the next step of the operation. It’s breakfast time. Eat because we have to get dressed! Get dressed because we have to go to baby class! Finish baby class so we can get home for nap! Get nap started so I can have writing time! Hurry, hurry through writing before the baby wakes up! Get ready so we can go to the park! Finish up at the park so we can get home so I can make dinner! And on and on…We were still on that hamster wheel, still always urgently moving forward to the next item on the agenda.

It wasn’t my schedule that was the problem. It was the fact that during every activity we engaged in, my mind was already on the next one.

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Journey to the Center of the Earth: Glimpse Inside an Active Volcano — Colossal

I didn’t do Kid Link Love this week but if I had, this would’ve been featured. Volcanoes are so awesome. This planet is doin’ stuff:

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Speaking of Kid Links, I shared this one with my girls:

A Wet Towel in Space is Not Like a Wet Towel on Earth — NPR

I’ve gotta think that zero gravity tourism will happen in our lifetimes. Which is irrelevant for me since I get motion sick on a porch swing. So I’ll have to content myself with videos like this:

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Have a wonderful weekend, everyone. We’ve got a party Saturday night and I’m leading a retreat after church on Sunday. A full weekend but a good one. Peace.