Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen on an artist's responsibility - "What's the cost to the world when the artist chooses not to be compassionate?"

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, the brilliant minds behind the documentary play The Exonerated, were kind enough to talk with me recently and share their point-of-view on compassion, how it's important to them, how it's pervasive in their work, and why an artist has a responsibility to take it on. The Exonerated was drawn from a series of interviews Erik and Jessica did in 2000 with exonerated death row inmates. It premiered in New York City in 2002, was directed by Bob Balaban, and its cast included Richard Dreyfus and Jill Clayburgh. It was later turned into a film starring Danny Glover, Aidan Quinn, Brian Dennehy, Delroy Lindo, and Susan Sarandon.

I'm especially impressed and grateful that they took the time to talk to me now, since they're preparing a new show, Aftermath, drawn from interviews they did with Iraqis who fled after the American invasion in 2003.

One of the topics that kept coming up in our long interview was an artist's responsibility to be compassionate. Surely Jessica and Erik's work is closer than most to that topic; after all, subjects of The Exonerated were former death row inmates, people who spent time in prison, people we might ordinarily dismiss. Jessica and Erik, however, saw them as human beings; as the Dalai Lama says, "Whether people are beautiful and friendly or unattractive and disruptive, ultimately they are human beings, just like oneself. Like oneself, they want happiness and do not want suffering. Furthermore, their right to overcome suffering and be happy is equal to one's own."

Jessica and Erik's play specifically and deliberately used these inmates' very own words to turn them from "enemies" into human beings right before our eyes. But compassion is at the core of Erik and Jessica's work, it's not just a by-product. Listen to Jessica talk about the art of storytelling:

“Storytelling is based in empathy.... it has this incredible potential to... expand our ideas about who we are and who might be like us in the world. It has incredible potential to make us all more compassionate or give us greater access to our own compassion and empathy... because storytelling can do that, absolutely as a storyteller I have a responsibility to absolutely make the most of that potentiality with my work all of the time. Otherwise, I've been given this incredible gift, and I'm not doing anything to serve others.”
Jessica's not just making this up; stories allow us to understand something directly, rather than intellectually. Facts are important, but stories hit us in the gut, and we remember what we've learned. In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel H. Pink paraphrases E. M. Forster's famous observation:
"A fact is 'The queen died and the king died.' A story is 'The queen died and the king died of a broken heart.'"
Pink says that facts are widely available in the current Information Age, and because they're so widely available, each one becomes less valuable. "What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact."

This gives storytellers a unique responsibility, because they have a unique ability to communicate with emotional impact.

Erik and Jessica go on to discuss why an artist must choose to be compassionate, and what the cost is when they're not working from a place of compassion:
“What's the cost to the world when the artist chooses not to be compassionate? It's an enormous missed opportunity... art is the thing, storytelling is the thing that we have as human beings that keeps us connected to each other, that enables us to empathize with others who we don't know personally and to walk in somebody else's shoes. That's what stories are for. That's why human beings evolved the ability to tell stories and to listen to stories, it's in order to identify with each other.”
But why bother? What's so valuable about being connected to other people? Very simply, it's in our self-interest to be interested in the well-being of others, to understand that we are profoundly and inextricably connected to others. Zen teacher Brad Warner said in our recent conversation:
"Interdependence is the reason you're compassionate. You recognize the interdependence and interconnectedness of things. You suffer if you're not compassionate. We think it's kind of arbitrary or 'it's a good thing' to be compassionate, but it's also an intelligent thing to be compassionate. It's the smartest move you can make, to act in a compassionate way. We normally think we want to get what we can for ourselves, and screw the other guy, and that's seen to be a way to make yourself richer or more powerful, and it works to a limited extent, but I don't think it works ultimately. The reason it's intelligent to act with compassion, because that's ultimately how you are going to feel better. So there's tremendous incentive to act that way. It's not just something you're doing for somebody else, it's something you're doing for yourself."
As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says in his book, How to Be Happy, the very essence of obtaining happiness for oneself is to seek happiness for everyone:
"Pacifying your own problems and obtaining peace for yourself alone is not sufficient. That is, to be honest, a very small purpose for living your life. A much more worthy purpose, a purpose that leads to much more happiness for both you and all beings, is to cherish all other beings––all beings everywhere who are suffering and want happiness––the same way that you cherish yourself. This is what brings real happiness and satisfaction."
And as Jessica and Erik echo:
“I really think that our happiness as human beings comes from our sense of connection with others.”
And they make it clear that potential impact is huge!
“All of the things that we can look at the world and say are problems... come out of lack of empathy and lack of compassion.”
For example, Thich Nhat Hanh says in his book, The World We Have:
"If we continue to live as we have been living, consuming without a thought of the future, destroying our forests and emitting dangerous amounts of carbon dioxide, then devastating climate change is inevitable. Much of our ecosystem will be destroyed. Sea levels will rise and coastal cities will be inundated, forcing hundreds of millions of refugees from their homes, creating wars and outbreaks of infectious disease.

We need a kind of collective awakening. There are among us men and women who are awakened, but it's not enough; most people are still sleeping. We have constructed a system we can't control.... We have created a society in which the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, and which we are so caught up in our own immediate problems that we cannot afford to be aware of what is going on with the rest of the human family or our planet Earth. In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a few hours they will all be killed."
Whoa. Thanks, Debbie Downer. But what Thay is saying, and Erik and Jessica are saying, is that we each have an opportunity and a responsibility to take action. Erik and Jessica point out that storytellers––actors, writers, directors––have a unique responsibility because of their unique ability and power.

And it would be easy to dismiss this power, because we often can't see its direct result, say, the way a doctor sees a patient survive because of his or her actions, or a teacher sees a child learn to read. But that's no excuse, as Jessica tells us:
“There are a lot of people I know in theater who go around having existential crises all the time about whether art can really ever effect social change or ever really make a difference, and sometimes that kind of existential crisis... can be a trap that allows people to not just dive in and say 'you know what, I'm never really gonna know if this is gonna make a difference.' I think at some point, we have to take a leap and say 'I'm not gonna know that, and do it anyway.'"
As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says,
"When we feel compassion for a person or an animal––any being at all––we wish that being to be free from suffering. When our compassion is strong, we don't simply wish for this but actually do something about it. We ourselves take responsibility for freeing that being from suffering.

In this way, each of us is completely responsible for pacifying all the sufferings of all beings and for bringing them happiness. It is completely in our hands. Each of us has this universal responsibility."
So get to it! Take it on! We each have this responsibility to take on compassion in our lives and careers, and it will give us the greatest happiness possible. And if we don't take it on, the cost is staggering.

You can take it on whether you're an actor, a writer, a director, an agent, a manager, a producer, or really no matter what you do in your life, whether in a creative field or not. As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says,
"Regardless of the nature of your job, as you prepare to do it think to yourself: 'I'm going to offer my services to others because I wish to pacify all their suffering and bring them happiness.'"
Thanks so much to Erik & Jessica for their time–and look for additional videos from our interview in the near future. And make sure to go see Aftermath when it opens! *

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