Thursday, June 18, 2009

Compassion & Contribution: "Yeah, sure, compassion's great, but what's in it for me?"

Hi everyone. Sorry that it's been twelve days since I've posted. In that time I've done two extraordinary interviews, which I've been processing in my mind. I've been doing a lot of reading, too, and it all seems like it's bearing fruit:

You may remember that back in March, I asserted the following:
  1. Compassion is at the center of every career that truly inspires me.
  2. Compassion is the key to the most extraordinary career possible.
  3. Compassion is the key to making the most extraordinary impact possible
  4. Compassion is the key to the happiest life possible.
The very talented and articulate Keith Nobbs was kind enough to share his thoughts with me on compassion as it relates to his work in the arts. Keith's an actor, and he'll soon be seen starring in the massive HBO miniseries The Pacific. Here, Keith talks about working on stage:
"When people go in to a theater, they sit there and they think they have nothing in common with what they're about to see, or who these people are. And throughout the course of... the evening, they realize, these layers of protection start to melt away, and they start to identify with these people and they start to relate to them, and focus on what connects them to these people, instead of what separates and divides them."
This is pretty basic stuff, right? Most would agree, that if the artists putting on a play create something that allows the above to happen, they've been successful in some way.

But there's another layer I'd like to focus on, that's primarily related to numero 3 above: Compassion is the key to making the most extraordinary impact possible.

In the Christopher Shinn play Four, Keith played a young gay teen on a date with a much older man, in a sexually charged scene. The particular performance Keith discusses here is a "student matinee," in front of a theater full of high school kids.

In the video, Keith talks about his concern about performing this play in front of these kids.
“There was a part of me that was so terrified of doing this play in front of those kids, because I thought... these are the people [my character is] most afraid of, and he's having to get up in front of them and be that naked and that vulnerable, and reveal the parts of himself he hates the most, in the least safe environment possible.”

"The risk of doing that in front of other people and revealing that part of yourself in front of that audience... it's terrifying. These are parts of ourselves... they could be joyful parts of ourselves, they could be shameful parts of ourselves that you don't want to reveal, but the power and the freedom of being able to reveal that, and then having people recognize that, and having people respond to that and validate those parts of yourself, is such a powerful... gift for us and for them."
Keith goes on to describe how the kids ultimately reacted to the performance, at a graphic moment in the play:
“They were so invested in the story, and treating it as though this was a real person, with real thoughts and real feelings, it was silence. There was no anxiety, there was no nervous laughter. Everybody was just listening. And it moved me so much, I almost wanted to cry in that moment, because I could feel them giving my character respect, feel them listening to him as if he was a real person. And then I thought about... how amazing to have this forum to tell this story... and the kid out there in the audience... who's gay, who may not even know he's gay, and he's sitting there listening to this story, and these kids, who he's probably afraid of... he can see them listening to this character, and respecting this character, and how moving that it for him to witness.”

There are several layers of compassion here that are pretty obvious: Keith's compassion for the character, which enables him to portray him in a way that allows the audience to actually listen to him and respect him, the audience's compassion for the character, unexpected by Keith, Keith's compassion for himself, allowing himself to feel the fear the character himself might experience among his peers, and Keith's compassion for the audience.

It's this last one I'd like to focus on here, and the impact possible because of it.

After the performance, Keith notices two specific things: that the audience was able to give his character respect, and that there might be someone in the audience who specifically identifies with his character, and who gets something very important from that identification.

So here, compassion is potentially the key to an extraordinary impact. What I find exciting about the way this occurs to Keith is the fact that he so deeply recognized this impact, and in some ways it appears to be part of the fundamental reason he put himself on the line––courageously exposing himself in a terrifying environment.

Here, Keith declares himself a contribution, he recognizes the impact his work may have on an audience, or even on one individual in the audience, and that impact is part of what gives him the ability to take action, however terrifying it might be. And, inevitably, that impact reaches beyond any one individual.

The amazing Zanders talk about "being a contribution" in The Art of Possibility:
"The practice is... inventing oneself as a contribution, and others as well. The steps to the practice are these:
  1. Declare yourself to be a contribution.
  2. Throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why...
...when you play the contribution game, it is never a single individual who is transformed. Transformation overrides the divisions of identity and possession that are the architecture of the measurement model, recasting the tight pattern of scarcity into a widespread array of abundance....

...naming oneself and others as a contribution produces a shift away from self-concern and engages us in a relationship with others that is an arena for making a difference. Rewards in the contribution game are of a deep and enduring kind, though less predictable than the trio of money, fame, and power that accrue to the winner in the success game. You never know what they will be, or from whence they will come."
I titled this entry "Yeah, sure, compassion's great, but what's in it for me." I hope that watching Keith Nobbs talk about his work inspires you to consider what is, in fact, in it for you. Think about what Keith says, above:

"And it moved me so much, I almost wanted to cry in that moment, because I could feel them giving my character respect, feel them listening to him as if he was a real person."

How extraordinary to feel that sense of aliveness, that connectedness with his audience, his awareness of the impact possible from his work. As the Zanders say, the rewards are deep and enduring when we take on being a contribution. And considering how you and your life are a contribution to others is the essence of compassion.

Thank you, Keith! *

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