Beyond the Catastrophe

I just got back from Chicago, where I finished a second week of improv class at the Second City Training Center. Improv has been described as summer camp for grownups—and it is—but for lots of us it’s a much deeper experience. Improv requires acute listening, so you can respond to your scene partner’s suggestions, rather than barreling in with your own pre-made ideas. It’s hard work, and an adventure, just like life is hard work and an adventure... with some summer camp thrown in, because we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously!

I love the fact that improvisers, even the ones who teach and perform at the highest levels of the field, always talk about what they do as “play.” They don’t say “I perform every Monday night,” or “she and I are in an improv group together.” They say, “I play on Mondays,” and “she and I have played together for five years.” What a great lesson for those of us who can get so mired in our to-do lists that we forget to find the joy. As I stare down this final push toward getting the manuscript done, I’m committed to bringing a spirit of play into the writing I’m doing. 

I just finished the book How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth by Will Hines. (Improvisers like hyperbole, eh? We call it "heightening.") Lots of good gems in the book, but I was struck by this section in which Hines was talking about a friend who’s wired to find the good in every situation. Here’s how Hines describes it:

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Now, we have to be careful how we deploy this kind of thinking. Brené Brown actually calls this “silver lining” someone—dismissing someone’s pain because we can come up with some positive spin on what’s occurred. It’s really up to each of us to make meaning out of the circumstances of our own lives, and that means not hopscotching over the tough stuff too quickly.

In this case, however, Will Hines appreciated his friend helping him find his way out of the dead end of rejection and into something that could bring life down the road. But even more than that, he was inspired by his friend’s ability to be oriented toward the good as a default—in other words, to assume there was a Yes, and then to look for it.

Some of us are naturally oriented toward pessimism. I kinda am. When something goes awry, I’m really good at catastrophizing. The plan isn’t just off the rails, it’s the Worst Thing That Could Have Happened. This takes a special kind of skill, I’ll admit—in fact, I’m pretty sure one of my Facebook friends posted an article recently that says pessimists are more creative than optimists. (I may be making that up, but don’t tell me otherwise, it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

Still, catastrophizing doesn’t make for good improv, whether we’re talking about stage improv or life improv. Catastrophizing keeps us fearful, suspicious and stuck. Instead, I’m challenging myself to experience my life with an orientation toward the positive—like Phil Jackson, to say to myself, “This is good, because…”

And then to find that “holy because,” ripe for the picking. 


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