Thursday, October 13, 2016

Homo Theatricales

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts”
            William Shakespeare. As You Like It.

“She had discovered the secret to life - which is that it's all invented. it's all invented.”
Benjamin Zander. Music director, Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

“For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals
Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination
We learned to talk”
Pink Floyd. Keep Talking. The Division Bell.

I have long believed that the one unique trait that sets us apart as a species is not our ability to speak (even parrots can do that) nor our propensity to collaborate (even ants and termites can do that) but rather our amazing ability to act - to recast ourselves into ever-evolving characters based on the people and situations around us.

It seems like everything we do, at one level or another, is part of an act we play (no negative connotations implied), part of a role that applies to that specific situation and that specific audience. The way I act with my daughter is different from the way I act with my wife which is different from the way I act with my cousin which is different from the way I act with my boss which is different from the way I act with my co-workers which is different from the way I act with people in line at Starbucks which is different from how I imagine myself acting if I were ever to meet Barrack Obama.

It is this instinctive ability to create and retain information about a thousand different scenarios simultaneously and to act accordingly in each case that sets us apart as a species. No other species can even come close. Our closest relatives, the chimps, may be capable of acting out half a dozen "personas". Ours is the only species that seems to have perfected the art of “acting”, of creating personas and story lines and dramatic plot lines - and then of acting in those plays.  We are not only Homo Sapiens but also Homo Theatricales.

In a sense, we are always playing a role when we interact with others, often even when we are alone and thinking to ourselves with no one else around to judge us. In fact, I claim that we are always acting – either consciously or unconsciously. A single individual can simultaneously be a father, a brother, a son, an engineer, a runner, a cousin, a musician, a philosopher, a soccer coach, a second generation Irish immigrant, a poker player, a devout Catholic, a Corvette aficionado, and many other things - all at the same time. In every social situation, we play out one or more of these (often conflicting) “roles” and others respond to us by playing the appropriate accompanying roles.

If you don't believe me when I tell you we are all always acting, then just think about someone you dislike - an annoying coworker or friend of a friend. Now think about how you act and feel and talk about that person when he (or she) is not around - and then think about what your behavior looks like when he is in the room. If that's not acting, I don't know what is.

These are all roles we play - roles, to be sure, backed by a single cohesive identity and a set of beliefs (the proverbial "I"), but roles nonetheless that can be dramatically different from one minute to the next. Most of us are good actors in only a few of the dramas we play in. We merely plod along as an extra or, at best, a bit player in most of the dramas we engage in during our lifetimes.

So, why are you boring me with this pseudo-Latin psycho-babble? Isn’t this basically what Shakespeare was saying?

I bring it up for one reason and one reason alone. It is often very difficult for us to "step out of character" but doing so can be illuminating.  It's only when you realize that you are always acting that you also recognize your innate ability to change your performance at any time, to play a different role - regardless of the circumstances. It's just an act, you tell yourself. You are in control. It’s just an act, after all.

I find it liberating.

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