Thursday, July 9, 2009

Kristof, Nobbs, Blank, and Jensen and the ability of the arts to cultivate compassion - “The more who die, the less we care.”

Ever since I read Nicholas Kristof's column in The New York Times last week, I've been trying to figure out how to draw a connection between what he describes––how we're more likely to help a single individual in need, than to help many in need––and the potential of work in the arts. Here's Kristof:
" the saying goes, that one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic. More depressing, appeals to our rationality actually seem to impede empathy.
For example, in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia’s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help."
Kristof quotes behavioral scientist Paul Slovic in saying "the more who die, the less we care." People are able to ignore a statistic, but it's hard to not stop and help a single, suffering child.

Kristof's piece reminded me of the unique ability that the arts have, to create an immediate and compassionate human connection to an audience and why that was possible and necessary. We're in a fog, most of the time, thinking about ourselves, and the arts provide immediate connection and understanding that shakes us out of our fog––whether we like it or not.

Listen to Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank talk about why they create documentary theater:
"All of that work that work that we do together I think is really grounded in asking audiences to empathize with people who they might not normally empathize with... the central mechanism of narrative, all narrative, film, novels, theater, etc. etc., is empathy, and I think with theater, that manifests in the most immediate way because everybody is literally in a room together. There's no screen, there's no wall, there's no page, there's no filter of the audience's imagination. Everybody is actually having a shared experience."

Keith Nobbs, too, talked about theater's unique mechanism, something that's created by being in the same room as someone else, and how that forces you to feel compassion for them:
“Someone described the difference of theater and film as watching someone go through something and being in the same room with someone who's going through something.... if someone is crying in front of you, and you're in the same room, and you're breathing the same air, you have to, as a human being, take that in and exist in that space with them and be there for them. You have to show up.”

Jessica and Erik must've noticed this, too, when they first conceived of creating The Exonerated. The project arose after they attended a conference on the death penalty, and heard stories about a group of guys in Illinois who'd had confessions tortured out of them by a particular police commander. They described how at the conference, they saw a documentary on some of the cases, and heard information that was disturbing, but "kind of on an intellectual level." The audience was presented information dispassionately, in a detached, journalistic way.

The key moment for Erik and Jessica came when the conference organizers presented, via cell-phone held up to a microphone, one of the men whose confession had been tortured from him and who remained in prison. "Within about 45 seconds to a minute, everybody in the audience was weeping.... all he was essentially saying was 'I want to go home' and who can't relate to that?"

Suddenly, a concept - "men who'd had false confessions tortured from them" - became a real live person. And he wasn't even in the room, he was miles away, connected by cell phone. But the fact that there was a real human being telling his story on the other end of that line forced every single person in that audience to notice, and to be personally, and passionately moved.

So the key for any artist is to create these moments of connection in anything they do, whether on stage or film, or in any other medium. The arts give us an opportunity to be the opposite of preoccupied: we're able to be present, and fully experience a moment that would otherwise slip by, unnoticed. They give us an immediate and undeniable connection another human being.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and get a little Buddhist on you. Shock! Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book For a Future to Be Possible, talks about Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva who is often called the "universal manifestation of compassion." In this section, Thay is talking about the Fourth Mindfulness Training, which starts with the words "Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of suffering."

Thay says:

"The meaning of the word Avalokitesvara is 'the one who looks deeply into the world and hears the cries of the world.'; This voice relieves our suffering and suppressed feelings, because it is the voice of someone who understands us deeply -- our anguish, despair, and fear. When we feel understood, we suffer much less."
This is what Keith, Erik, and Jessica describe above. By being in a seat, in a theater, faced with a real live person on stage, we're setting the stage for deep listening. This deep listening allows us to understand another's anguish, despair, and fear, and in turn, it allows us to see that others understand our own anguish, despair, and fear. "When we feel understood, we suffer much less."

So how does this all connect to Kristof's point about our ability to ignore the suffering of millions, while we can't help but want to help a single, suffering individual? It's simply that compassionate work actually creates a real, suffering individual in the space before us, whether on stage, on film, or in any medium. We are hardwired to feel compassion, as I described in the recent Daniel Goleman post. So when that real human being is created before us, we can't help but feel compassion; since, as Jessica said above, "the central mechanism of narrative, all narrative, film, novels, theater, etc. etc., is empathy," we enter any space where a story is being told ready to empathize and to feel compassion for another living being.

This works in two ways:

1. When we feel compassion for another, we want to help that person and relieve his or her suffering. So the arts, then, create a world where we are all driven to help others, to relieve their suffering.

2. When we see a character or story created from a place of compassion, we feel understood, because we know, deeply, that the human beings depicted are no different from us in the most fundamental ways. We feel heard. This is the voice of Avalokitesvara, which "relieves our suffering and suppressed feelings, because it is the voice of someone who understands us deeply -- our anguish, despair, and fear. When we feel understood, we suffer much less."

It's possible, then, that through the arts, the suffering of many, for example, "wrongfully convicted death row inmates," becomes present to us as the suffering of a single human being. We then want to help that real human being, and that compels us to want to help others in the same situation.

In addition, when we experience that other human being as wanting the very same things as ourselves - for example, "I just want to go home," we feel understood, because we know that this human being shares anguish, despair, and fear that we have felt ourselves.

So the Kristof piece truly highlights what we're talking about here. A focus on compassion in the arts is necessary, and could even be a matter of life and death. If you, as an artist, want to connect to your audience, choose compassion. If you work with artists, and want them to connect to their audiences, guide them towards compassion. If you, as an artist, or as someone involved in entertainment or media in any way, want to make an impact on others, to relieve their suffering, choose compassion. *

1 comment:

  1. I love Keith Nobbs! What a class act. Erik