I’ve spoken a lot about empathy. And about how our theatre is an empathy gym. Where we come to improve our powers of compassion. But what does that actually involve? We all know what a work out at our physical gym requires. If we really want to get in shape, it is going to hurt. The more desire we have to improve the capacity of our muscles, the more pain we will feel. We push ourselves until our muscles scream, knowing that we will be stronger next time.
When I think about it this way, it becomes clear why empathy in our world today is in such short supply. It isn’t always fun. To really feel what others suffer is painful. When we enter a character’s grief, her sorrow, his remorse, we kindle those feelings in ourselves. If all the circumstances in the theatre are just right, the lighting, the music, the acting, our hearts will jump to life and ache with the characters as they yearn, and suffer and hope. It hurts us like it hurts them and we feel joined with their humanity.
In this way, I think going to the theatre is an act of courage. We go willingly, knowing we may suffer along with our fictional brothers and sisters. We throw ourselves into the ring, knowing we are likely to get our hearts bruised with sadness, knowing we may feel what it’s like to be humiliated, or marginalized, or abused. Of course, it is safe in the theatre, and like a dream from which we know we will awaken, we know our suffering will pass when the house lights come back up and we have woken to the real world. And the pain we feel for others is often tempered by inspiration we get from characters who courageously transform by facing their pain. We are ennobled by them. Their courage rubs off on us so that we are simultaneously humbled by suffering and lifted by courage. What a fabulous experience theatre can be!
Having put in our time in the gym, do we feel a bit more capable than when we went in, a bit kinder, more likely to identify with someone else? If we are avid theatregoers, can we expect our diligent work-outs to make us into the Olympic athletes of empathy? In the theatre, our empathy requires nothing of us, except perhaps to make a donation. But in life, once we really feel with someone, we need to take an action, to affect change, to put our money where our heart is? And yet I think we will all admit that the rush of compassion or inspiration we feel as we leave the theatre often washes off us as the tumult of daily demands lands. Are even actors, professional empathizers, who spend their entire careers feeling what others feel, necessarily better citizens? Kinder people? Actors and directors spend many more hours per day in the empathy gym than those in the audience. Are we more compassionate in daily life?
Carrying our theatre empathy practice over into our daily lives requires an even braver kind of commitment. The Lojong school of Buddhism says, “Turn all mishaps into the path.” The principle behind this slogan is that the troubles we run into once we leave our empathy gym are blessings and we can actually welcome them. This is pretty counter-intuitive, but irritation, resentment, anger, and all the unpleasant emotions that come our way can be looked at as opportunities. We may be hurting, but can our training from our theatre work-outs remind us that we can absorb and handle huge and overwhelming feelings. In the theatre, we have felt the grief of The Trojan Woman, the excruciating dilemma of Hamlet, the helplessness of Linda Loman to cope with her despairing Willy. When our own big emotions come up, can our theatre practice prepare us to cope? Can our immersion in symbolic trials help prepare us for the real ones? Or help us absorb the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with returning fire? I think they can. If we come to the theatre bravely embracing not only the suffering, but the noble courage of the characters, we have exercised our own courage and not only can we become more compassionate to others but more capable of facing our own pain and more compassionate towards ourselves. If we really feel with our fictional brethren, they can send us home, prepared for what will come our way.