Improvising in the Dark: How to "Yes, And" When it All Falls Apart


No matter what happens on stage, improvisers are called to keep the scene going.  If there is a flub, we can’t deny what happened. That means we can’t ignore it or explain it away. The flub now becomes part of our reality. The rule is, “deal with it and move on.” It’s the basis of “Yes, and.”

Life off the stage is equally fraught with flubs, failures, disappointments, and disasters. It’s part of being human. We all experience failure. We all suffer pain and grief. Whether it’s pain of our own causing or from something out of our control, there is no escaping it. Nietzsche said, “to live is to suffer.” He also said, “to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism proclaim that life always involves suffering. Suffering comes from our desires, but one can put an end to suffering through practiced living. (This is a very inadequate summary of Buddhist thought, but it gives a rough idea.) Christian Scripture proclaims that, “perfect love casts out fear.” Fear is integral to much of our suffering. We fear our suffering will be more than we can bear. Often our suffering is anticipatory, that is, we imagine the worst-case scenario and play it over and over in our heads until it feels as if it actually happened.

Even though we know pain, loss, and grief are part of life, that doesn’t diminish the feelings we experience. Our feelings are valid and should not be ignored or discredited. (Denial) Our feelings left unchecked, however, can wreak havoc on our lives. There is a saying in meditation circles “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Pain can be physical, in the case of disease or accident. Pain can also be mental in the case of loss, grief, or betrayal. It is said that {pain x resistance = suffering.} Suffering is not a feeling, but the interpretation of those painful feelings that involves thoughts, beliefs, or judgments. It’s not so much what we feel, but what we do with those feelings.

So, imagine your life is falling apart. Imagine you’re losing your job, or your spouse wants a divorce, or you find out you have a chronic illness. All these scenarios are real and extremely painful, so how do we deal with this kind of news? We can’t change the facts, we can only change our thoughts, beliefs, and judgments. This is where we improvise. Our life looks like it’s falling apart, and we have no idea how it’s going to turn out. I can succumb to suffering and wallow in my pain, or I can acknowledge the reality of my situation, face the pain, follow the fear, and say, “Yes, this sucks.” Then I say, “And, here’s what I can actually do right now.” Back to the core tenant of improvisation, “yes, and.” Another way of saying “yes, and” is to “Affirm and Build.” Affirm in this sense doesn’t imply the situation is a good thing, it merely states it is what it is, and we can’t just wish it were different. The “build” is what I can bring to the table to make the situation better.

Improvisation is about flexibility, teamwork, and creativity. When life falls apart remind yourself there are options. There is never only one way to do anything. Secondly, find your team. You can’t do it alone.  Your team can be family, friends, church, or whoever are your people. Trust them, rely on them, be vulnerable with them. Your team can’t be there for you if you don’t let them in. Then get creative. This set-back could be a chance to learn new skills, follow your dream, find a better relationship, or realize you are enough. As Nietzsche said, find something in the pain that is redeemable. Improvisers are taught to follow the fear. Face your pain and your fears but don’t let them control you. Playing it safe never gets you anywhere.


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