Notes from the Empathy Gym – April 2020

Notes from the Empathy Gym – April 2020

Right about now, I’m sure many of us are feeling pretty small, isolated, many of us alone, feeling defeated by a microscopic single cell creature, the tiny arm of omnipotent nature, who as we once again are reminded, can humble us humans with a snap of its finger, with so many catastrophic tools at its disposal to bring us down and remind us of how fragile we are.

And this particular scourge has the temerity to attack us at our greatest strength. We are social creatures. What has made us who are, we who have come to be the dominant species on this globe (or so we imagine) is our capacity to collaborate. Our language and social skills bring us together in so many ways, to create systems for communication, for justice, for trade, for worship, for entertainment. And we do all these things together. Our sense of belonging is what makes life worthwhile.

It’s ironic that the only way we can fight this virus (I think of it as an enemy) is to separate; the hardest, most painful thing for us to do. It is counter-intuitive for us to be apart. Every instinct we have tells us to band together when we fight. We are strength in numbers. Now we are told to isolate. Even though it is against our nature, we know we must.

I’m reminded of how the Russians defeated Napoleon. Out-manned, out-gunned, and facing the greatest army the world had ever seen, led by the greatest military genius, the Russian army retreated through the breadbasket of Western Russia, and torched the harvest crops that fed their nation. As the bone-chilling winter descended, the French Army was trapped, starved, and frozen. It was completely counter-intuitive. They defeated the enemy by depriving them of food and that’s what we are doing now, depriving the virus of its nourishment – us.

And that is the right course. And the fact that we can do that, that we can tear ourselves away from our families, friends and co-workers; our sports, and yes, our theatre, heart-breaking as that is, demonstrates that even in our separations, we are collaborating at the highest level of our capacity, joining together to not only survive, for the vast majority of us will survive, but to protect the most vulnerable amongst us; the elderly, the weak, those who are compromised physically.

I am so proud to be human in a moment like this, to see our capacity for collaboration thriving at its most potent. It reminds me of what I love most about humanity; that when things are at their worst, we are at our best. And yes, there will be those who will think only of themselves, of profit, of power, and we will have to watch our the worst among us try to muck things up to serve their own interest, but my guess is, we will ignore them and go about the business of safe guarding our grandparents, and parents, our heritage. I started thinking of Shakespeare’s poetic celebration of man and womankind:

What a piece of work is man
How noble in reason,
How infinite in faculty,
In form and moving how
Express and admirable,
In action how like and angel,
In apprehension like a God,
The beauty of the world,
The paragon of animals.

Now I know Hamlet goes on to disparage mankind’s darker, mercenary, evil sides, but I keep hearing the wonderful setting in the musical Hair, and I think, “Yes!, we are all these things.”
And I am also proud to be a part of the Empathy Gym, to which everyone receiving this e-mail belongs. And I know that like myself, all of us who are a part of San Francisco Playhouse are practicing empathy in this challenging time.

We are dark now, but I know that all of the practice we have been doing in our glorious little room together inspires us to practice empathy and compassion while we are banished from our theatre. And I also know that we will be back. We will all return to our playhouse, to play, to laugh, to cry, to grieve, to celebrate the best of humanity, to look our weaknesses directly in the eye and vow to do better. I am so grateful for all of you who believe with me that we are on the right track, that the theatre we have created has served us well and will serve us again.

I would ordinarily not include an ask for donations in a newsletter and I promise not to make a habit of it, but if you are capable, I hope you will consider giving something to help Susi and me and our amazing staff to keep our fragile craft afloat through this unforeseen and unfathomable crisis.

We will defeat this enemy of mankind and learn humility in the process.
We will not let it take away our hope,
We will not give up our stories, our empathy, our compassion.

Bill English

P.S. Please write me at arti[email protected] to share any thoughts you may have.

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Bill English is Artistic Director and Co-Founder of San Francisco Playhouse, and in twenty years with Susi Damilano, has guided its growth from a bare-bones storefront to the second-largest theater in San Francisco.

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