Three years ago I participated in Level Five, a performance art piece designed by Brody Condon (with assistance from Bjarke Pederson and Tobias Wrigstad.) Level Five took the form of a 1970’s era EST or Landmark-style forum, with one caveat: all of the participants attended in character.
Over the course of one hauntingly memorable weekend at the Hammer Museum, I sat in a room full of strangers simultaneously playing roles and undergoing (ostensible) personal transformation. I cannot explain to you how odd it is to make acquaintances, learn, write, eat, shout, grieve, and even fall in love while in character.
Afterward we all met each other for the first time, carefully acclimating to the realization that these people we’d grown familiar with over the course of the weekend never existed at all. I smiled so much that my face hurt, wanting everyone to understand that I was far, far removed from the character I’d played (Ada, a cynical, egocentric bitch with no time for anyone’s emotions.)
Or was I? I had pretty much forgotten about Level Five until this weekend, when I attended Kyle Cease‘s seminar in Los Angeles. Kyle is a comedian, or was, and is now a motivational/transformational speaker, or isn’t. I suppose, actually, he’s both, because over the course of the seminar I was motivated and transformed, and laughed so hard that my stomach still hurts when I stand up too fast.
That took a while, though. Because I learned rather quickly and painfully that the persona I’d taken on for Level Five was not as far removed from me as I’d thought. I found, in fact, that despite my sweet, joyful, bohemian exterior I am just about as cynical as they come.
Part of it is in self-defense. There are only so many organic-farms-slash-yoga-centers a girl can intern at without acquiring a protective sheath of cynicism. But I believe part of it is deeply ingrained, an idea, learned early on, that if I stood in judgment of a thing I proved myself superior to it.
It’s handy, really. I can harbor secret cynical feelings for just about anything, play nice on the surface, and yet protect myself from the possibility of non-inclusion or rejection. I get to feel superior to nearly everything I encounter. The one tiny problem is that I never actually get to feel anything all the way. I never get to experience what it is to know, or to be known, fully.
So there I sat, a willing participant at a real personal transformation seminar, not playing any roles, free to befriend anyone I chose and to participate as fully as I wished, and damned if Ada didn’t emerge again. She snickered at all of the earnestness and she took restroom breaks when it was time for small group work. She sat by the pool instead of socializing at lunch. She put her hand over her notes so that no one could see what she was writing. She told herself she already knew all of this stuff and why was she here, anyway?
But then Kyle killed Ada. Allow me to explain.
One of the guest speakers at the seminar was Dick Gregory. Dick Gregory! As a card-carrying Quaker I can tell you that this was a big deal for me. A nauseating cocktail of white guilt and fascination and hero worship all boiled up at once when he took the stage.
I am utterly defenseless in front of the likes of Dick Gregory. I become all Quaker earnestness and left-wing humorlessness. I have so much respect for him that it is dangerous.
Years ago I went to hear a prominent journalist discuss his take on the events of 9/11. He held forth for quite some time, and then left us with this statement: If you believe my version of things because I have told it to you, then you will believe the next charlatan who comes along and tells you the exact opposite. We don’t want a following of people who believe us because we are charismatic–they’ll follow the next charismatic leader who comes along. We want a following of intelligent people who think for themselves, who do their own research and test our theories against the facts they unearth.
It’s good advice. It bowled me over at the time and it still bowls me over. But when someone who marched next to Martin Luther King Jr., someone who has carried out innumerable hunger strikes in service to his beliefs, someone who has been tested hard and constantly, stands up there and articulates his version of things, it’s awfully easy to just believe him.
And the juxtaposition of Dick Gregory’s bitter, revealing humor with the uplifting, expansive mood of the rest of the weekend was jarring. Yes, there was Ada, but she was just a small voice at the back of my experience. The rest of me had been happily absorbing the atmosphere of heady possibility and imminent transformation. Dick Gregory burst this like a bubble. His very being reminded me of all of the misery and prejudice in this world. How can we laugh, and be joyful, and talk about unlimited personal power, when there is segregation and war and life-draining corruption?
Something began to simmer its way out of me, a deep discomfort, and then Mr. Gregory stood up to answer a question. He is an elderly gentleman, and had been seated throughout most of his speech, so as he expounded, Kyle moved to offer him a seat.
“Would you like a chair?” Kyle asked. Mr. Gregory was in the midst of a heartbreaking story.
“And THEN,” he continued, “they cut his LEGS off.”
“Oh,” said Kyle, “probably not.”
A nervous giggle spread and then widened into a room full of true laughter, and something broke free in me, and I began to write.
I wrote about how much pain there is in the world. I wrote about how these violations of all that is good and true and right command our attention, how they demand space for themselves. I wrote about how easy it is to believe that these violations disprove any philosophy of joy or peace or abundance. I wrote about how easy it is to shame those of us who try to live from joy with tales of those whose joy has been torn from them.
And then I realized that you cannot console someone who has been violated with your own guilt. You cannot lead them out of trauma with shame or anger. If you are a person who lives in joy, when you see a violation you will not run, and you will not multiply the violation with anger or finger-pointing or revenge. You will go to the person who has been violated and you will do what you can to make it better. You will help them understand that this is just a violation and that it does not mean their previously beautiful world is based in lies. You will help them heal. You will, eventually, bring them to joy again. And you will do all of this because you come from joy despite the violations. You use the energy that is released by the violations—the fear, the hatred, the misery—to fuel a transformation into joy.
I realized, as I wrote, what my work is. This work I wish to do, this work I am doing with women is to bring joy into the heartbreak and the trauma and the shadow and the misery. It is to hold the small candle of daily pleasures up, and up, and up, even in the deluge. It is to be a joyful person in a world that scoffs at joy. It is to be so joyful that the scoffing of the world does not even register. It is to carry this deep into the heart of our violations, where we would all shame joy, and remain unashamed.
And Ada, the last vestige of my Puritan guilt, winked out.
And the rest of the weekend was sublimely wonderful, free of roles and personas and characters (well, there were plenty of characters…I just mean I wasn’t playing one); full of laughter and presence and expansive truth.
Kyle, brilliant soul that you are, you opened me up with laughter. You got past my last defense. Bless you forever for combining the unlikely worlds of comedy and personal transformation, setting me free to stand firm in my life’s work, unashamed, laughing, joyful.