Useful Fictions

As I get ready for the release of God, Improv, and the Art of Living (have you pre-ordered?) I've been asked, in both interviews and regular conversation, “How has improv changed your life?” It’s a big question with a lot of small, everyday answers. Here’s just one: We all make assumptions about the people and circumstances around us, often without thinking critically about those assumptions. The improv principle of yes-and (to receive what is offered and to build on it) invites me to lean in the direction of compassion for others and myself in the assumptions I make.

For example, on a recent Saturday morning I was in a coffee shop, waiting my turn and growing increasingly late as the person in front of me placed a large and complicated order—about six hot beverages to go, each with some specific, nit-picking substitution or adaptation. Moment by moment, my irritation grew: I have somewhere to be. What is taking so long? Why do we all need these special snowflake drinks anyway? I fumed, preparing to order my decidedly uncomplicated tea.

Then I noticed that the man was wearing a suit. To pass the time, I found myself thinking of reasons why someone would be dressed up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Job interview? Stayed out all night and on his way home? Laundry day and everything else was dirty? I finally decided he was attending a family funeral, and had decided to pick up beverages for his fellow bereaved loved ones. And those picayune order details? Rather than being indulgences of an “I want it MY WAY!” society, they became a means for this gentleman to show care for people who maybe needed a little comfort on a very difficult day.

I obviously have no idea whether he was really going to a funeral. But ultimately, what does it matter? My little moment of improvisational imagination allowed me to breathe deeply, to relax into the waiting, and to beam a little love toward this stranger—and don’t we all need love? Making a decision to move toward charity helps me be the kind of person I would like to be—who I feel called to be. 

To be clear, I have to work constantly at this practice. My mind often wants to go to the least charitable interpretation of events. But improv reminds me that while I can’t always change or control the circumstances of my life, I have full control over my own yes-and.

Last week I was with 16 clergy colleagues for our annual “preacher camp,” called The Well. During our time together we delve deeply into scripture and theology through papers and sermons we share with one another. It’s always one of my favorite weeks of the year.

My friend Andrew Foster-Connors shared some ideas from philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and his book As If: Idealization and Ideas that intersect with this idea of “yes-anding” in a positive direction. Appiah talks about the concept of “useful fictions.” No world of ideas can possibly represent the full truth, because our minds aren’t big enough to encompass it. So “there is a gap between what is true and what is useful to believe,” writes Appiah. This is even true with certain scientific principles, which are helpful in predicting outcomes, but are not always 100% accurate. Such principles aren’t strictly “true,” because they can’t predict outcomes in all times and all circumstances. They are “roughly right,” however, and therefore a useful belief.

I wonder what kind of beliefs you are currently clinging to, and whether they help you live as the person you are created to be. How might you alter those beliefs in the spirit of yes-and? What kinds of “useful fictions” might you play with? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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