Wisdom//

The Life-Changing Exercise I Learned in Acting Class

Actor Josh Radnor revisits a thought experiment that altered the way he moves through life, and maybe it could do the same for all of us.

Image by Chris Winsor/ Getty Images
Image by Chris Winsor/ Getty Images

I’m going to invite you to do a thought experiment. This is not based in science or even any sort of anecdotal evidence. It’s trippy and out there and may brush up against much of what you believe to be true about life. If you hate it, keep in mind you can drop it as quickly as you picked it up. But I think it’s worthwhile.

When I was in drama school at NYU, Zelda Fichandler, the chair and grand dame of the graduate acting program, taught a class to first years called “The Actor’s Space.” One of the exercises she had us do was called “As if,” which she insisted was the key phrase for the actor: Can we act as if something is true? This was our holy task, after all. To imagine and empathize. So Zelda had us circle up and asked us to quickly dream up as many different possible scenarios as we could. When an idea would occur to someone they were to hop into the center of the circle, state the “as if” and kind of try it out, while repeating the phrase — a kind of lightning-quick browsing for various dramatic scenarios:

— “As if I’m scared of the dark.”

— “As if I’m the most confident human who ever existed.”

— “As if I suspect my husband of infidelity.”

— “As if I hate trick-or-treaters.”

— “As if I’m the undisputed ruler of most of the Western Hemisphere.”

The whole point was to let our imaginations wander, near to and far from our own experiences, to get in the habit of stepping into shoes that were not our own.

The exercise was alternately thrilling and cringe-inducing (which could also pretty much describe my whole first year of drama school). I’ve been thinking about the class and that exercise a lot lately. In these hyper-partisan, tribalized times, “As if” seems to me a particularly useful and potent phrase. Would that we could all take a moment to ask ourselves: What would it be like to think differently than I think, to have been raised differently than the way I was raised, to have more money or less money, to have endured more suffering or less suffering, to have more opportunity or less opportunity?

I think our spiritual and psychological growth in life is marked — in some measure — by how deeply we can feel into other people’s pain, to understand that no one suffers in isolation. We’re much louder creatures than we realize, our behavior and states-of-mind far more contagious than we can sense. We are — to dust off an overused word — profoundly connected.

Training to be an actor kept, and continues to keep, my muscles of empathy and imagination limber. It made my life much bigger by insisting I continually update and enlarge my circle of concern. But not everyone receives this kind of training (even though they really should and it shouldn’t be confined to drama schools). Absent any self-critique and self-reflection, our own experiences and points-of-view remain primary and it proves difficult for many of us to care much for those outside our immediate circles.

I’ve kind of wandered off from where I intended to head so let me reroute here. I want to talk about climate change. (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?) Here goes: The U.N. and the U.S. both recently issued climate reports that were alarming, to say the least. The current refugee crisis, which is already taxing many countries, is nothing compared to what might be on the horizon. Water wars and energy shortages straight out of cinematic dystopias. Large swaths of densely populated lands becoming uninhabitable. Scientists — the least excitable people on the planet — are officially freaking out. Even a constitutional optimist like myself must admit: Things are looking bleak.

I get the resistance to really sitting with all of this. Climate change is a first-rate bummer and thus incredibly hard to keep at the front of one’s consciousness. Much like death, it’s a fact that we kind of have to submerge to keep going. I’m not suggesting I’m braver than most in looking at this stuff. I don’t want to die, nor do I want to live through some kind of post-apocalyptic warming earth scenario. I’d much prefer to bury my head in the sand and just blithely hope/assume an alliance of visionary climatologists and politicians of good conscience will figure something out before the credits roll.

There has long been — unsurprisingly and unconscionably — deep political and entrepreneurial opposition to doing a single thing about global warming, or even admitting the basic fact of it, insisting the whole thing is a politically-motivated fiction. (The idea that 97 percent of scientists have some sort of left-leaning political agenda is just completely delusional.) I’m not sure what is motivating these climate change-deniers beyond profit margins and good lord that’s depressing. A New Yorker cartoon from _____ sums it up perfectly: A man in a tattered suit in a post-apocalyptic wasteland sitting around a fire tells a group of young children: “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of profit for shareholders.”

Why isn’t this the lead news story every single day? The fact that in 100 years our planet might be uninhabitable. All the studies about why people aren’t more fired up and alarmed about the climate crisis point to the fact that it’s both kind of too large for us to wrap our heads around and it doesn’t seem yet to have affected much of our daily lives (assuming of course your home is out of the way of wildfires and hurricanes). Rattling off the many many impending disasters a failure to combat climate change will _____ seems to work about as well as telling a smoker the dangers of cigarettes. Smokers know the dangers, they’re doing it anyway. That’s essentially what an addiction is: an inability to cease life-threatening behavior. And that’s what we’re dealing with on a collective level with climate change: Our addictions to plastic, to oil, to meat, to comfort, to basically our entire way of life.

But it seems one of the biggest hurdles is this notion that by the time the worst of it arrives we’ll all be long gone. It won’t be our mess to clean up, if clean-up is even possible at that point. An odious passing of the buck, to be sure (“Hey, we ruined the planet for you, good luck!”). For all our vaunted talk of evolution, humans rarely change until we have to change. So that’s where we are today: Very few of us are willing to budge because it appears our daily lives can continue unperturbed. This puts us in a terrible predicament: This is an all-hands-on-deck moment if ever there was one, but for a variety of very complicated psychological reasons, it’s supremely hard to get people alarmed enough.

So here’s the thought experiment: I’m going to ask you to act as if reincarnation is a fact. That we don’t end when we die. We shed these bodies and we get another one. And then we return. Life is a circle not a straight line. Just hold that as a truth for one moment. And remember: You can drop it as quickly as you picked it up, so don’t worry. :)

Why am I asking you to consider this? I have no theological agenda here. I’m neither Hindu nor Buddhist. I just keep thinking that this idea that we won’t be around for the worst of the climate crisis might be totally wrong. What if we will be here? Not in heaven with all those who looked and prayed like us — or in hell with those who sinned and transgressed like us — but rather back on the very earth we despoiled? Could this perhaps shift people’s thinking on this issue? What if this is not something that our children and grandchildren will bear the brunt of? What if it’s us? What if we will be our grandchildren or great-grandchildren? That we will be born onto a roiling, hot, resource-scarce, war-ridden planet? (Maybe that’s actually what ‘hell’ is…) What then? Does it change our approach? Does the whole issue suddenly feel more urgent?

This feels like a useful “as if” to me because it obliterates any notion of kicking the can down the road. We will quite literally reap the world we have sown. Now even if you don’t believe this, on the off chance this is how it works, doesn’t that stir something in you? Make you want to tread upon the earth with a touch more delicacy? Take greater care of thought, word, and deed? Want to participate more actively in the healing of our ailing planet?

Confronting the environmental crisis is at once scientific, political, and spiritual. Might the ancient help us with the modern, the sacred inform the secular? Could we find it in ourselves to be the heroes of our own story? Can we act as if we will return here? As if our every action in this lifetime is of deep and lasting consequence? As if the earth is not just our current home but our future one as well?

Confronting the environmental crisis is at once scientific, political, and spiritual. Might the ancient help us with the modern, the sacred inform the secular? Could we find it in ourselves to be the heroes of our own story? Can we act as if we will return here? As if our every action in this lifetime is of deep and lasting consequence? As if the earth is not just our current home but our future one as well?



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