Like millions of other people around the world, I was a fan of the actor and comedian Robin Williams and was saddened by his death this past month. In a world where the evening news piles one tragedy upon another, we need everyone who can bring a smile to our lips, make us laugh, and lighten our hearts. We need jesters and purveyors of joy. To lose one of the best of these is indeed a loss.
On YouTube, I watched an interview he did with James Lipton for the show Inside the Actor’s Studio. After a hilarious hour of non-stop improvisation, he took questions from the audience of drama students. One young woman, impressed by ability to be so creative in the moment, asked him, “How do you do it? How do you risk so much and yet have so much vulnerability?” He responded, “What am I risking?”
I was struck by his answer. The idea of risk has meaning for me beyond the realm of the theater or of improvisational comedy. Few of us may go on stage or stand before a group and speak extemporaneously. Such a prospect fills many people with terror. But in many ways life itself is improvisational, bringing unexpected challenges and opportunities into our lives. How we respond and the success we have often depends on our openness in the moment and on how we think about the risks involved.
We all experience two kinds of risks. There are genuine risks in which the consequences of a particular action could pose a real threat to our well-being or the well-being of those around us. But then there are imagined risks in which we feel some part of us is threatened although in fact it isn’t. Or put another way, there is the fear that we are at risk when in fact we’re not.
In answering the young woman, Robin Williams pointed out that he wasn’t a new comedian just starting out; he wasn’t risking his career if his improvisational wildness bombed with the audience. He was in front of a crowd that honored him and loved him; he could do the most outrageous thing, and this audience would still accept him. So what was he risking?
By the same token, there had been a time when he had been a young comedian just starting out with his career, and he had been just as crazy and extemporaneous then. This was his gift, and the risk he faced wasn’t that he might fall on his face in front of an audience. As he told the students, he had done that many times. The risk was that he wouldn’t be true to himself, that he would play it safe for fear of failing.
There are certainly times in our lives when we have to make decisions and must weigh the risks involved, whether the risks are social, financial, physical, or of some other nature. In such moments, the idea of risk—the imagination of risk—may be stronger and more fearful than the actual risk itself. Such fear can be constricting, preventing us from functioning at our best. At such moments, we may wish to ask ourselves Robin’s question: What am I risking? What is really at stake here? What is the worst that can happen? Can I handle it if the worst does happen?
Much of my own work is improvisational. Although I’m always thinking and writing about the topics on which I lecture or teach classes, when I get up before a group, I never know exactly what I’m going to say. I need to allow the “sense of the event” to unfold from the collaboration of consciousness between myself and my audience or my students. I don’t know in advance what this will be like. It is always an emergent experience. So I can’t plan for it, and having notes only gets in my way.
I’ve been teaching in this manner for fifty years. You’d think I’d be used to the uncertainty of it by now, and in fact I do trust implicitly that I will know what to say and how to say it. But the butterflies still take flight in my stomach whenever I’m about to go on stage or step before a class; there’s still that frisson of risk that I feel that no amount of past experience seems able to erase. Actually, I get concerned if I don’t feel this because as many speakers and performers know, it’s part of what gets the energy going for what you need to do.
But though there’s a feeling of risk, in fact, the risk is imaginary. I learned long ago what would happen and what it would feel like to be in front of a group and not know what to say. The first time it happened, it was as if a switch had been thrown and my mind had simply turned off. There I stood in front of a group of fifty or sixty people and not only did I suddenly have no idea what to say next, I had no sense of what I had been saying. My mind had gone completely blank.
There was a moment of panic, and then I laughed and told everyone exactly what had happened. “My mind just tilted,” I said, “and all the ideas rolled off the edge and disappeared!” I then asked them to give me a moment, and I just stood there in silence waiting for the ideas to come back…and they did.
I treasure that experience. It was embarrassing in the moment, but it taught me that I could handle finding myself in front of a group with nothing to say as long as I didn’t panic and was honest with my audience about what was happening. If I treated it humorously, others did, too. And I discovered that people really want you to succeed and will give you more than half a chance.
What I learned from that experience was that the real risk wasn’t what I thought it was. The risk wasn’t that I might suffer some embarrassment or make a fool of myself by finding myself on stage with nothing to say. The risk was that I wouldn’t get on stage in the first place to allow something to happen, something that could be wonderful as easily as it could be awful.
In the improvisational theater that is life itself, we are often confronted with possibilities and opportunities that ask us to step beyond our comfort zone and open ourselves to something new. A natural tendency is to say “Whoa, hold on there!” And many times, that may well be the appropriate response. But life rewards openness and courage. Who knows what gifts may manifest if we take a step into something new? When such moments come to us—and they will—that’s when we may wish to ask Robin’s question: “What really am I risking?”
David’s Desk is my opportunity to share thoughts and tools for the spiritual journey. These letters are my personal insights and opinions and do not necessarily reflect the sentiments or thoughts of any other person in Lorian or of Lorian as a whole. If you wish to share this letter with others, please feel free to do so; however the material is ©2014 by David Spangler.
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