You who are so wounded

I’ll start by owning one great privilege and advantage (thereby possibly costing all hope of elevation in to the ranks of the suffering): I was raised by two healthy, responsible, educated, and loving parents and an extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles—which has always been the most important thing about me. And perhaps they just happened to be that way– but just maybe, they learned to overcome or at least to compartmentalize adversity, and passed their ways among them and down to their offspring.

Here’s a flash memoir.

As a child, I was acculturated to femininity while seeing quite plainly that boys had it better. I really thought I could be a boy if I wanted it enough. At seven, I lost my hearing in one ear. I was introverted—always had to work hard to join in while preferring to sit back and watch. Had a crush on a girl. As an adolescent, I grew unwanted breasts, bled from my vagina, spoke in a high voice and found myself the resistant object of male desire when I was sure I was meant instead to spit, cuss, save the weak, solve the world’s problems, lead troops into battle, and someday rise to literary fame as a social philosopher and raconteur. I never knew what bubble to fill in when required to categorize myself on a form. Had a crush on a boy. Throughout youth and beyond, I was subject to passionate infatuations, rages, sorrows, indignities, agonies. Fell in love. I thought I was smarter than everyone around me, but I did dumb and dangerous things again and again. As an adult, I skirted the edges of the accepted and acceptable, not finding a way to be wholly in, wanting to be special but not abnormal, not committed enough to be wholly eccentric, either. I went into debt. I doubted myself. I smoked cigarettes and tried about every other wrong thing a person can try, and I was nothing more than extremely fortunate that none of it killed me. I was groped, raped while drugged. Twice. I dropped out of school, then clawed my way back in. Went into more debt. I lost friends—to entropy and nonspecific attrition—divergent paths; to bad behavior and to death. I gained friends. I made messes. Sometimes, everything went well. Sometimes, I drank too much, was lonely, was depressed and broke and saw no way forward. I fell in love with a man who cheated, had my heart ripped from my chest. Metaphorically speaking.

Being human—for everyone—is complicated, challenging, difficult, painful, unpredictable, often overwhelming. You already know that, because you’re having your own life and it is a vibrant or dismal, churning, sharp, cold, warm, cozy, alienating, delightful, terrifying maelstrom, an island of calm, a mall of boredom, a well of darkness, a pool of light. Nothing entitles me to wag my finger at you or to ‘splain things to you. I don’t need to teach you what it’s like to be me, because you’re you—and have your own set of circumstances to deal with.  This is my husband’s response to my mini-autobiography:

As a child, I was acculturated to masculinity while seeing quite plainly that girls had it better. They did not have to join fistfights and rock fights, play physical sports and risk humiliation, or fret about the amount of money they earned. They got close to the men that the boys yearned to know. I broke bones three times trying to excel at sports. My skin was dark enough to read as not quite white at a time and place where there were only two races. Later, my skin lightened and categories expanded and my racial ambiguity became invisible. I was short, shorter than all the boys and therefore not taken seriously in many contests, and shorter than many of the girls I longed to date. One year, just before college, I grew eight inches and my years of shortness became invisible. I was supposed to be successful in a world in which success was a moving target, constantly adjusted upwards depending on what I had accomplished. I flunked out of college, too immature to get myself up in the morning or to put myself to bed at night. We lived in eight different states before high school, so all friendships ended abruptly. I made allowances for people, afraid of losing them, my acquiescence attracting narcissists who, when I finally expressed an agenda of my own, would leave me. I fell in love with a woman who broke my heart. I developed one of the few skills that no one ever sees you do, so I always felt unappreciated.

Each of us is born into and grows up with different (historical, economic, genetic, political) advantages or disadvantages; different social positions; different cultural privileges accorded.

THe difficulties faced by one may be unimaginable to another, upon whom fortune may has smiled more often than not (and blessed, not despised, may both be).

Some have a marvelous capacity to reframe the worst of times as not only survivable, but fortifying if not ultimately rewarding; others lose heart or even embrace misery. And each of us lives as a better person for acknowledging and understanding such differences; for not assuming poverty of character where poverty of circumstances shows itself, and for exercising goodwill and compassion as a general rule.

But, I don’t need to teach you that. As a human, you already know it–and, if you do not (if you’re not curious, thoughtful, self-reflective, observant and insightful) then me putting you in your place (and providing guidelines for your improvement) will not actually make the world a better one.

Thing is: today, one faces contempt if one seems fortunate—unfairly fortunate—from, well, anyone else’s outside perspective. If one has managed to successfully rise to and above the occasions of his/her (all our) human difficulties, s/he can be dismissed. S/he is somehow less worthy if s/he is healthy and happy, reviled as simply having had it better, having had it easy. If one has not automatically fit in with the imagined normal, yet has managed heroically to belong nonetheless… if she has been ill, but is now well (or worse, has lived conscientiously and luckily and never been ill)… if he has floundered yet by sheer will and hard work, made of life something he cares to live (or has framed his floundering as life lessons and never whined)…  if she has dealt with hunger, food, and need, yet managed to stay thin… if he has come through hell, yet found himself on his feet… or, has simply maintained (with all the effort and pain it entails) his general well-being… then s/he is ineligible for kudos. Health and wellbeing in this view are undeserved, even contemptible. Illness, frailty, misery become markers of a superior identity.

Kudos seem to go to those who have failed and continue to fail. A prize to Janette if she tries to drop those extra 60 pounds but gives up because it’s so hard, and then feels terrible about herself. A prize to Elton if he joins a walking club instead of just walking! A prize to Emory if she balances her bills at the end of the month to stay just this side of eviction (but not if she rents an apartment she can afford)! A prize to Judit for quitting alcohol, with which she’s been poisoning herself and her relationships for years.

Nothing to you but eye-rolling if you’ve faced your demons daily… if you’ve not allowed grief or loneliness to become a habit… if you’ve actually kept your chin up, your private parts wisely in your pants, your ducks in a row: it is only if you’ve failed or are failing that you are esteemed in this upside-down world.

Behind most well-intentioned articles, autobiographical posts and angry tweets that feature stigmatized identities, blame widespread ignorance and purport to give lessons in how we (who–presumably–encounter nothing bad in our own lives) ought to live is a misunderstanding of how stigma works and a profound under-appreciation of our shared human condition.

 

 

 

 

IMG_0871To: Dr. G.

From: Emily H.

Re. Why I Am Giving You A Shitty Evaluation

Dear Professor,

I took your communications class because I have to. I was forced to take it to meet my major requirements and I don’t want to be there. But, okay. So, I’m like, “I’ll make the best of it, whatever.” I just want to be a news anchor or an event planner why do I have to take all this stuff that has nothing to do with what I plan to do in my life!!! So first this expensive textbook we had to buy, fine. We come to class and your all like  blah blah blah and then we watch this film outside of class and we’re suppose to give a presentation with a partner. Based off the chapter. We start the presentation and you’re like “Wait a minute” and it turns out we’re not doing it right. Then every time we try to just finish and tell you about the film you keep stopping us. It’s really frustrating. Then you’re like blah blah blah and explain to us why you’re stopping us and we’re like “Can’t we just give the stupid presentation and sit down?” Why can’t you just tell us what you want and let us do it and leave us alone?

Then there’s the whole textbook. How come we cant just read the chapters then and take a quiz or something?  Why do we do all this other stuff in class like talk and have you interrupt us and give talks where after you’re like all critical. WHY CANT WE JUST go over the chapters together, which is what I expect to do when I READ what I’m suppose to read. Oh right you make us write essays and then you make these comments on them asking all kinds of questions and even coming down on spelling and wording. How come you can’t just read hwat I wrote and not get hung up on the details.

And this one film on racism, I get it, we talk about it in all my classes so why not just one more class where you just feel bad and don’t find out anything new. I get it. White people are horrible racists end of story. Then when we talk about it in class if I say anything its wrong. You’re always trying to make us talk and then it’s not the right way to talk. So I give up.

Then we’re suppose to do stuff off campus and take a certain kind of notes and you give us all this extra reading that frankly I don’t have time to look at about “how to take field notes.” I know how to take notes ok? I learned that in middle shool. And you keep asking us to set the stage, explain what time of day, what we saw, describe this but I’m not allowed to have feelings about it right. And every time I’m like “Okay then the sky was blue it was 3 p.m. and people were on their way to work” you’re like, “Wait, where exactly were you?” and “How do you KNOW they are on their way to work?” and “Hundreds of people? Or tens? Or a few?” and “What did you see that made you think most people were on their way to work?” or “What inferences are you making?” and “Is that an assumption?” and I’m like just let this class be over.

Its like most of the time you ask questions we’re suppose to answer so you can say back, ‘You totally suck at everything.” Keenan was telling what he saw on that one afternoon all he said was “This one woman was so mad” and you have to stop him and say “How do you know what she felt? Describe what you saw,” well, he saw that this one woman was mad. I go, “This girl was wearing a really nice sweater” and you’re like, “Ok, that’s an evaluative statement,” and I’m like please kill me now.

This is what I wrote down that you said. “If what you learn in this class is how to pause to look at the world, see it more clearly, describe what you have observed before inferring, interpreting and evaluating and before making claims you will have learned what I hoped you would learn.” And later you said “If you can differentiate description from evaluation and notice how people behave in contexts you will have learned what I wanted you to learn.” Then later you went “If beyond that you begin to notice your own ways of making meaning, if you start to be curious about that and to relate how we make meaning to how we live together, you will have learned what I hoped you would learn.” Which one is it. Im so confused. Plus I have no idea what you meant I guess you di’dnt make your point with us, oops.

The best thing this whole semester was the gust speaker you had who came and told us about his work in the community and how hes like just absorbing it and asking questions and learning all the time and writing reports and blogs for the community and excited about it. That was awesome. I wish he was our teacher. I didn’t learn anything in this class and thats why I am giving you a shitty evaluation.

-Emily

 

To: Emily H.

From: Dr. G.

Re. Why I Am Giving You A Shitty Evaluation

Emily, thank you for taking the time to write at the end of the semester. While it might have been a good idea to meet with me much earlier to talk about our class, I’ll try to respond here and now to the comments you have offered in explanation for why you are giving me a shitty evaluation.

First– yes, alas, as you’ve noted, I pay attention to spelling, wording and mechanics–in short, to language–to what is being communicated, by whom and in what ways. I tend to notice aspects of language use only when such aspects either stun me with their brilliance or begin to undermine the communication experience for me as a co-participant in an exchange or relationship. I also attend to language when the metacommunication supersedes the content, as it begins to do in your e-mail: you refer to our discipline as “communications,” for example, right out of the gate–when your major is, in fact, “Communication,” our department is “Communication,” and communication is communication, no need for an “s.” Your use of the plural communicates to me that either you don’t notice that we (in the discipline, the major and in class) use “communication” or that you have noticed, and decided that your way is better. The former tells me that you haven’t observed, attended to or been curious enough to wonder about the conflict between what your major is called and how you refer to it. The latter tells me that my perception of the possibility of teaching you anything has been accurate, and that, as you say, our shared experience has been an epic fail.

About the book: as I explained the first week of class, I don’t often use textbooks, but this one is excellent, rich in information, well-researched and written, student-centered–and raises into view the complexities that I myself like to raise for consideration in a class such as this. The book helps to provide grounding theory and foundational material for everything else we’ve done. Your in-class comments, writing assignments and presentations were to have been based upon (not “based off”) our reading. Students have been repeatedly invited to apply what they have learned while reading and reflecting –to draw upon questions raised by the text, and to respond to prompts posed by me or arising from the student’s own unquenchable (or, in some cases quenchable–or, sadly, quenched) intellectual curiosity.

Class was designed to be primarily dialogic, with very few quizzes or exams but instead offering a great deal of varied experiences: prompted and facilitated class discussions, field trips and excursions, writing exercises including short essays and blogs, and short, informal presentations. These activities are where you might not only struggle to articulate complicated ideas but also demonstrate (and where I might appraise) your best thinking. I have indeed interrupted student presentations, though (perhaps you noticed?) never when the student presenting has provided a solid organizational structure and utilized conceptual frames, terms and approaches that were assigned. During presentations in which students do not first lay the groundwork (but rather jump randomly into some aspect of what was seen, observed or considered, making opening statements such as, “Well, we watched the movie, and chose this one scene where there’s a party, and it’s like I don’t know, these people come together in this one girl’s house and–“– or “I went to a very sketchy park and saw these Black kids on a picnic with their parents”) I do, absolutely, step in and call a time-out to focus upon why we’re here and what the purpose of the assignment is.

Sometimes, yes, I pose probing or focusing questions, and sometimes, I simply ask that the presenting student lay out more descriptively the essential information he/she/the listener needs to understand before proceeding to an interpretation or analysis. As this is the heart of what I’m teaching– this, and the habit of thinking contextually and developing an approach to the world that is first descriptive before being evaluative–it seems we’ll both get more out of presentations if you’re not doing something completely different.

I grasp that, in spite of my having articulated the pedagogical function of this interactive process, you nonetheless feel that I am rude to intervene in your musings on the film, the outing or the reading. You dislike the transactional nature of these lessons. I suggest that getting the “right answer” (or avoiding discomfort, or pleasing me, or getting the presentation over with so you can sit down) might not be the most productive goals for you to hold in a classroom. Some students actually look forward to and are rewarded by lively, collaborative interactions with teachers, finding these the most stimulating opportunities to explore ideas together. They do not experience the teacher as mean, but rather as invested in their learning: as teaching. It may sound unbelievable to your ears, but one reaction to being told one is thinking unclearly or has misunderstood or made a mistake is: “Oh! Ha! Right! I see the error.” or “Wow! This is more challenging than I expected it to be!” or “Thanks!”

At any rate, imagine my delight in having you in my class! Seeing your alarmed expression as I sought to engage you in lively conversation… watching dismay color your features as I crushed your spirit (by asking you in a genial way if you had noticed any patterns of behavior in the object of your observation)… perceiving your jaw tighten and being subjected to your chilly silence after I wondered if you had noticed that you were evaluating, not describing.

What I ought to say is that having you in class has made the whole semester an uphill struggle; your disengaged countenance kept me awake trying to find different ways to interest you, and the more I worked on that the more you shut down, chose hostility over friendly, curious engagement, glowered and rolled your eyes… and the less satisfying the class became, for me, over the weeks. Oh, and the atmosphere of discontent you generated affected others, too. That was the best part of all.

Well, at least, I think we’ve achieved a kind of mutuality in our parting days.

Along with the course description and teaching/learning objectives I made available on the first day of class, along with the hopes I’ve repeatedly articulated for students to fully take on the challenges this class poses, along with my provision of all the assignment parameters and the grading rubrics I’ve published and my ongoing comments on your written and oral work, I hope this e-mail serves as my own explanation of why I am giving you a “C-” for the semester–and also why a “C-” is generous. Finally, I do, genuinely, wish you all the best and hope your other classroom experiences feel better to you than this one did, and that you have a long and rewarding career and life.

-Dr. G.

 

 

 

 

Performances of Denial

Nothing’s wrong. There’s nothing for us to talk about. I don’t have to have this conversation. I can’t do this right now. I don’t want to do this right now. Why are you pushing this? It won’t get you anywhere.

Narcissus.requienii.7103

Narcissus

Why do you keep insisting there is a problem, when it’s much easier and more pleasant for me if we don’t talk about it, and if you just act like everything is fine? Why does it matter what happened last month? Last year? Over the past few years? Why must we talk about it? Can’t we just move on? Can’t we just pretend you’re happy? Can’t you get out of my face?

I do not acknowledge that there have been conflicts in our relationship. I do not acknowledge and will not discuss any matters in which you might think you are right and I am wrong, or in which you might characterize me as having done something that was in my own best interest but which tanked our relationship. I will not  talk about our relationship.

I will remain silent, or walk out of the room, or cry if you try to force a conversation on me. I am the one controlling how the relationship goes, not you.  What? You say that your experience is tied to mine because I’m your mother? I’m your boss? I’m your colleague? You need me to talk about ways that our relationship has been unequal? That I’ve hidden behind silence, departures, and tears? You think you need to talk about how I’ve used you when it suited me– to project an image, or to protect me from criticism, or to make a case for me? Is that what you’re whining about? Well. I’m not having this conversation. There’s nothing for us to talk about. Nothing’s wrong.

The Lord’s Prayer (a translation)

“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name- ”

Male parent, up in the sky, Your name is something special-

“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven-”

You’re the Boss of us, so we have to do whatever You want. Here… and up in the sky.

“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses-”

Give us food and ignore when we don’t do what You want us to do-

“-as we forgive those who trespass against us-”

-just like we ignore when other people don’t do what we want them to do-

“-and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil-”

-and don’t make us want to do what You tell us not to do, but keep us out of trouble-

“-for Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory-”

-because You’re the Boss of us, and Scary, and Important-

“-forever and ever, Amen.”

-even when we’re dead and skeletons and dust and the earth is gone and the universe is gone and time is gone and whatever. Ok, that’s all. Please, do not send me to Hell to be tortured. Thank You.

Dear Q of D:

“I am so sad. I’ve been sad for months, maybe years. I cannot seem to get engagement from the world. I cannot seem to effectively engage. I thought I was one thing, but it turns out, I am not a very good one of that thing, mainly because I never learned to quite sell it or to make it pay off. I am capable of pouring all my time and efforts into compelling work that never goes anywhere and is only seen by 3 people. Anyway, I believed that I was headed for greatness. I didn’t want to be great for it’s own sake, but I did long to feel the joy of being a valued, contributing member of society and, I admit, I wanted to be seen as more than competent; I wanted to be seen as talentedextraordinarysomething special. I hoped for a place in the world. I wanted to be met with the same enthusiasm I’ve always felt for doing cool stuff with other interesting people. Yes, I’m interesting. Except, I’ve lost my interest in myself. Oh, Q of D! I have always been on fire with ideas and hopes and love, and I’ve never been a slacker (well, not since my teens). I’ve made all kinds of difficult and worthwhile things happen. But, not really all that much lately. I’ve mostly been told by the indifferent universe, “Ok, that’s enough; what you’re doing is of no consequence.” It’s true, art is not of any consequence. But, neither is anything else. And, oh, and I work with a completely dysfunctional group of people who can’t seem to effect any kind of productive or positive changes, much less have an authentic conversation about anything important or meaningful. They are super-committed to avoiding any form of conflict. But, that is not particularly relevant to my story, except what the hell? I’m losing my sense of invulnerability. Help. Signed, Listless.”

Dear Listless: Oh, come on. You’re alive, have lots of friends and family you care about, are needed by many, appreciated by the ones who count, and you’re well-fed and healthy, right? And now you’re just whining.

First of all (on point) about people recognizing you, seeing you or even noticing your existence in passing: who needs some narcissistic prince-ass, the company President or some pathetic, terrified little manager to bolster your freaking self-confidence? Ok, that’s not what you are asking, and the fact is, you don’t want them to bolster your self-confidence; you just want someone to actually play with, but with intellectual vigor, genuine humor, and commitment to quality. So, I get it.

But I’m just saying, a cheerful, relaxed attitude and good bourbon goes a long way. You sound smart, creative, lively, funny and good-looking. Take a break from trying to change things; take a clue from John Lennon and let it be.

Oh, and the performance aspect of this? Which, I presume, is why you wrote to me? You wanted to be seen as this, or that, or the bees knees. Even by yourself, you wanted to be “seen as.” You have been your own audience, but you know what? You suck as an audience. You’ve forgotten all the courageous, creative, successful, even thrilling– and talented, extraordinary, something-special parts and all you remember is the moment where the set fell over. Well, who are you to criticize? YOU get up there and do it.

Love, Q of D.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

We also have a backstage—the part of our experience that is not on public display and which we seek to keep private. The process of hiding our backstage processes and only showing our front stage is what Goffman calls “mystification,” meaning, let’s say, that the host likes to clean the sink, vacuum the stairs and wipe the finger prints off the doorjamb before the guest arrives. Arriving, we say, “Wow, your house is beautiful! I wish mine was this clean,” as if we believe that their home always looks spotless. As if we do not also clean our homes when we have company. We seek to mystify, and we allow ourselves to be mystified by others.

Our backstage is like a wait station at a fancy restaurant. It is like the slaughterhouse from which neatly wrapped steaks emerge for the grocery shelves. It is like the dressing room where the athletes are naked and vulnerable; it is like the teacher’s lounge at the middle school. Our backstage is our bathroom. We have many physical backstages in life, which suggests that for every backstage there is a potential front stage where we present what is presentable. The delicious plate of food, delivered by a clean, happy waitperson, turns the diner into an audience. The would-be backyard barbecuer, looking for the right cut of meat on display at Safeway, is the audience for that performance of “Bloody butchery? What bloody butchery?” The well-lit stadium, filled with fans and magnified by the media, makes an audience out of millions of people both local and remote. The classroom turns students into an audience for the school’s performance of “We Will Tell You What to Think About and How to Think About It.” The living room, where we open the front door dressed and made-up to greet our dinner guests, is the setting for our performance of “Aren’t You Impressed?” or at least “Please, Like Me and my House.”

Another kind of backstage is what we’re thinking and feeling behind the expression that we’re wearing on our faces. Front stage, we look like we’re paying attention; we’re taking good notes on the guest lecture; we’re sitting up straight. Or, we’re performing something else, the rebel version: “I don’t care. You don’t scare me and you don’t interest me, so I’m going to read the newspaper AND listen to my i-pod while you talk. I’m going to text my friends, or tap on my laptop keys, because I don’t care.” That’s a front-stage performance of high status, a performance titled, “I’m too important to be bothered with you.” (What we don’t think that we’re performing is, “I’m too stupid to be able to follow what you’re saying,” Or, “I’m a narcissistic pain in the arse.” ) But, we’re not always in control of how our performances are perceived. And, backstage, we might be having an experience that we desperately seek to hide in our outer expression. If I have a migraine at an important job interview, I must not crease my brow or appear uninterested. If I feel incompetent or vulnerable or needy at a job interview, I must not appear so; I will smile and nod and perform what I do not feel in order to mystify my audience, my interviewer.

Whenver we are in the presence of others, we have a backstage and a front stage operating. When we are intimate with others- our best friend, our twin sister, our lover- the backstage may be far less monitored: we pick our toenails as we watch The Daily Show, or burp, or fart; we leave the bathroom door open when we use the toilet. Managing the impression that we make on others is exhausting, and we are relieved when the burden is significantly lessened by familiarity, love, affection and trust. But even with our closest mates, we do not reveal everything. There is always, always something held back, if not consciously then in spite of ourselves. We have schemes, fantasies, desires that we have never shared and never will. Joseph Campbell called it the Shadow or the Shadow Self; Billy Joel called it “the Stranger.” Erving Goffman would not say there is one essential self, but rather many potential selves, and points out that the first meaning of the word person is mask, which implies that there is something behind the mask. He would say it’s another mask.

I am not saying that everything we do is a performance. If I sneeze because sneezing accomplishes a social goal for myself, such as allowing me to leave the room momentarily to collect myself, that is a performance. If I sneeze to demonstrate to someone in the elevator that her perfume really, truly is taking up too much space, that sneeze is my performance of victimhood, meant not as a low-status move but as a way to demonstrate to the perfume-wearer that I have been mightily offended by her scent overtaking my personal boundaries—my performance of “Victimhood-as-Power.” I am better than she, because she has made me suffer. If I sneeze because I have  a tickle and can’t stop the sneeze, the sneeze isn’t a performance, but everything I do afterwards is a performance: I will try to save face. Check to make sure there’s nothing embarrassing clinging to my skin. Wipe my nose with a Kleenex, perhaps trying to hide the nose-wiping, which is a sort of performance of modesty, a performance of “I don’t really have a body or bodily fluids.” I will save face by apologizing, “Excuse me!” or making a joke: “Kablooey!” or by blaming something outside of my control: “Damn pollen!” I will try to create affiliation: “Anybody else have allergies? Then you know how bad it is!” Or, I will pretend nothing happened. A performance of “Sneeze? What sneeze?” or “I’m too  important or secure to be bothered or stopped by a reflex.”

Actors have to understand all this, or they suck. Bad actors look like they’re faking it; we don’t buy their performances. Bad actors don’t get that their characters are made up of little performances; that their characters have backstages from which front-stage actions are set in motion. Characters in a play come to life when the actor does what characters in real life do: negotiate status. Occupy multiple roles before multiple audiences. Maintain and protect a backstage while creating and sustaining a front stage. Seek to mystify. Preserve face. Make, use and misuse symbols. Perform rites and rituals. Perform roles. An actor whose character fails to do these things is a bad actor. A one-dimensional actor. An actor who does not understand human behavior. In other words, the actor must, within the context of the play, perform a character who is, himself, performing for the other characters. An actor’s performance of a role is a performance of a person who is performing something. It is said of Shakespeare that his characters’ backstages are transparent to the audience. When Hamlet turns to the audience and wrestles with “To be or not to be,” we see his backstage. But, behind that backstage is perhaps another backstage- that of a man who is performing a feat of logic—“To die, to sleep—to sleep, perchance to dream…” in the face of the illogical. At the very least, behind Hamlet’s visible backstage, there is an actor portraying Hamlet, and that actor’s own backstage: he has a cold. His marriage is falling apart. He has a hangover. He is terribly insecure and fears the critic from the Denver Post who he knows is in the front row tonight.

The Academy may not recognize your amazing gifts, but…

… most people are natural actors. It’s how we develop a sense of self, and how we maintain our roles in families and social and professional circles. Even the word “role” points to performance. I suppose you can imagine a person raised by wolves who, you argue, is NOT an actor, but I’d argue back that wolves live in social hierarchies and have rules, and whoever lives among wolves as a wolf will still have to perform status, if nothing else.

Acting is something you already do, whether you’re aware of it or not. Let me explain what I mean. Humans are social creatures. Human society is structured through rituals and symbols. We are, as Kenneth Burke once said, the symbol-making, symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal. We use symbolic interaction to communicate meaning. Symbols (language, gestures and ways of moving, facial expressions, objects and images, structures, sounds and combinations of sounds)—the meanings of these are linked to their symbolic power: our experiences of human social reality and our place in it are mediated by symbols. People make, use and misuse symbols to survive in a social environment, to create families, groups, teams, cultures and subcultures, to create or acquire and maintain power.

In a human hierarchy created and sustained through symbolic interaction, we are hyper-alert to the minutest of signs given off by others, particularly those whose survival depends upon us and whose survival reflects back upon our own competence, our own roles and our ability to fulfill them (I am a good mother whose child is healthy and cared for; I am a good father who provides for my family; I am a good babysitter who can be trusted).

We are hyper-alert to the signs given off, in our presence, by those upon whose favor our own survival and success may rest. I pay particular attention to the nuances of my boss’s communication when I am in her presence—does she avoid conversation? Laugh at my jokes? Appear to like me? Appear indifferent?

We may be hyper-alert to someone who might give or withhold affection, since affection is a strong motivator: was Mom a little reserved on the phone? Does she still love me?

We may be hyper-alert to someone other than a parent with whom we share a blood bond reinforced by affection and by traditional role expectations, such as a younger sibling.

We are less hyper-alert to to the signs given off by those, such as grandparents, who hold no power over us and whose affection for us does not determine our sense of self-worth, although if the grandparent  is very wealthy and we stand to inherit a significant sum when they die, we may be more hyper-alert to the signs of affection or disapproval that the grandparent gives off, and act differently in response.

We are less alert with those with whom we share the same amount of power, and for whom we hold little or no responsibility.

We are not alert at all to those with less power or status than we hold ourselves and for whom we are not responsible, since it does not matter to us whether they like us or not, or whether they are happy, unhappy, alive or dead. (This is one reason that those who occupy a low status might be compelled to force themselves into view, to make others take notice—because others have communicated that they, the low-status persons, are not worth bothering about. That can be enraging in some circumstances, such as when power, possession of resources and health are flaunted in the face of lack and suffering). Sometimes, it’s true, self-interest (that is, for example, the alleviation of guilt, the promise of heaven or the pleasant sense of purpose and worth that altruism feeds) overcomes self-absorption and makes us care about the weaker, poorer, sicker and less fortunate.

Being alert to the signs given off by others, we respond to those signs accordingly. We “act” a certain way in order to elicit approval, to threaten, to communicate deference, to demonstrate affiliation or superiority. We act dismissively, we act friendly, we act huffy or aloof, we act like we are enjoying ourselves. We act. What we “act like” is our performance for others.