As 2019 begins, our nation remains ripped in half. Divided into camps, we refuse to understand the other side, so that the hatred between parties has become far more damaging than the agenda of either side. We cannot even hear the arguments of our adversaries, having enemized the opposition to the point where there literally seems to be no way to agree about anything. Our culture is deeply wounded with no healing in sight. And this macrocosm trickles down to the microcosm of families. Who among us doesn’t have brothers or aunts or grandparents to whom we can hardly speak because differing from us politically makes us feel we must hate them. Brother against brother.
My brother is very conservative, I quite liberal, and we have had many destructive political fights, suffering years of eye-rolling, alienation and name-calling. Over the holidays, we got into it again, but somehow, a glimmer of wisdom knifed through the darkness. After a passionate, table-pounding polemic from one of us and a scary moment of silence, the other one (I forget which) opened their mouth and out fluttered the most healing of words, “I understand where you’re coming from.” Another silence. And a breath from the original polemicizer, followed by a torrent of, “you have no idea how much that means to me.” I think all of you despise us and think we are idiots. We have real lives, and fears and yearnings. And suddenly, we both could breathe, and a slow dawn lit up the tense night between us. We didn’t ever agree, but we sat there for a few hours, really listening to each other and a healing blossomed in spite of our disagreement. Empathy > understanding.
How do we understand? Not in the merely factual sense of knowing how to do a mathematical computation or how to direct a play, but in the deeper, organism-altering, visceral way in which we really “know” what drives another person. What do they yearn for, what are they afraid of? There is only one way to do that. Empathy. To roll up your sleeves and get in there, inside the perhaps brittle shell of another and feel along with them. And as I said in a previous blog, that can really hurt, as we really feel the fear and suffering of someone else, be it a character in a play or a live human.
The empathy we practice in the theatre inevitably leads to deeper understanding. But there is another step on the way to healing, especially when it comes to those with whom we violently disagree or those who have done real harm. We must forgive. In the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’s wonderful book, “The Book of Joy,” they lay out this universal cycle for us. Tutu, who suffered horribly, imprisoned by the perpetrators of apartheid in South Africa, could only find peace by empathizing with his torturers, understanding the terror that must have been driving them and forgiving them. Only then, could he heal. When I first read this, I was aghast, that such a level of humanity was possible. I couldn’t imagine myself being capable of such forgiveness.
What role does forgiveness play in the theatre? Can we forgive theatrical villains by bravely walking in their shoes? Or are we being nurtured to build understanding in the theatre that empowers us to forgive in our real lives? I thought of forgiveness recently while watching Mary Poppins. George Banks starts the play as a sexist, misogynist pig. His wife, Winifred, is so under his thumb she can barely breathe, and we can feel the palpable rage hissing inside Abby Haug’s layered performance. She cannot understand why her husband behaves the way he does until she sees the reality behind his hero-worship of the evil Miss Andrews. Understanding how he was clearly victimized by the monstrous nanny enables Winifred to understand him. When she sees the frail, terrified little boy inside her blustering husband, she is able to forgive him, and their family can be healed.
Empathy leads to understanding, leads to forgiveness, leads to healing. Of course, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, or that justice is not necessary. But in the theatre and in life, empathy is the path to understanding. And even in our polarized country, understanding can lead to forgiveness and reconciliation. In the courtroom trial for Dylann Roof, members of the victims’ families stood up to publicly forgive him. As they put it, “We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.” They could not forgive him without seeing him as human, without understanding that he suffered. As we creep tentatively into 2019, let’s look closely at how our work in the empathy gym can lead to healing.