Brian Howell

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Brian Howell 

The Unexamined Life is Over Rated: 
Reflections on Theater as a Way of Knowing


I remember feeling pretty good about myself when finishing off one of my college essays oh-these-years ago.  I had stumbled across a quote from Socrates that fit so well for an aspiring college student: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  Ancient Greeks, knowledge, drama; it seemed perfect. I didn’t notice, until the essay was submitted, that this quotation was actually splashed across the front of the college’s view book. Needless to say, my attempts at teenage profundity were not so effective as I hoped. 

Yet this idea, for all its hackneyed uses, remains powerful. We often live our lives, even as Christians, with less than full awareness of why we are pursuing what we are pursuing, how it is seen by others, and how we are shaping our own lives as we live in daily habits. We have to learn how to examine our own lives, and the lives of others. As David Foster Wallace observed to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2006, we have to learn to see the water in which we swim.

As a cultural anthropologist, my whole disciplinary orientation is toward ‘seeing the water.’ In my work I strive to understand others’ motivations, their habits and values, their convictions and conventions. These invariably cause me to reflect on my own, but this is often easier said than done.  Provided one can find a quiet space, it’s not hard to sit and think about one’s self, but getting inside one’s own head can become a kind of echo chamber or endless tape loop.  Sometimes you just need to get outside yourself to examine life well.

Theater is a means to this very thing.  Theater emphasizes – is synonymous with - the spectacle of humanity.  It literally puts people on stage so we can view common themes in ourselves – love, death, jealousy, compassion, fear, joy – from an “outside” point of view.  Yet one need not be Lawrence Oliver, Lin-Manuel Miranda, or Susan Lucci to be part of theater.  Indeed, rather like church, it turns out that theater is not a place to go, but is something we should do. 

Our recent CACE seminar was entitled Theater as a Way of Knowing. I applied to the seminar considering theater in that literal sense, as the place where others provide the action for my observation. We did have the opportunity to attend two actual productions, but most of our time was spent in much more intimate, more participatory sorts of theater.  This was theater in the grand sense of the word where we were encouraged to engage one another, externalize and re-inhabit our own experiences, create our own spectacle for ourselves.  Together with my colleagues – my friends – I came to a deeper understanding of how to examine this life we live.

Eighteen faculty members from a wide variety of disciplines came together in Arena Theater for two and a half days. We spent time “exploring space,” “walking and breathing through the room,” and “letting [our] bodies lead” in creating actions and reactions. It’s not the most natural thing for this 40-something professor to swing his arms and make hooting noises in the middle of a circle of his colleagues. Not that it was hard, per se, but it was nerve wracking to step into the circle and figure out what to do, or put a hand on a colleague to represent the feeling of oppression, or volunteer a thought, word, or feeling that hadn’t had not been fully developed.  It took a new kind of thinking, responding, and acting in the world to do these things, and most of all a trust and courage to jump in and do it.

It was more than personal development or group building, though. All the goofiness was, just as advertised, a way of knowing. These actions, movements, breaths, and explorations of “space” became a profound way to examine life. Theorist Pierre Bourdieu abandoned the term “culture” as a way to think about our patterns of behavior because he felt it had become too associated with purely mental processes, the “beliefs” of Berbers, the “world view” of Algerians, or the “values” of the French. He adopted the term habitus suggesting the sort of embodied knowledge and patterns of behavior that are “history forgotten as history” and “regularized improvisation” that normally influence our actions. It’s a way of thinking that I’ve always found empirically and intuitively true.  There’s so much we do, day to day, that isn’t about what we “believe” or our “values,” but patterns of acting and reacting that feel right.  Theater games make this even more patently evident. As we violate norms of space and decorum; as we focus on our “normal” actions of walking, breathing, looking, or standing; we become far more conscious of our selves and others, in the room and outside it. We see ourselves. We see each other.  We come to appreciate connections that we had taken for granted just moments before.  

I was struck in a new and deep way that we, as humans, are never fully human on our own. Our lives are always and inextricably part of community with others and in communion with God.  To examine our own lives, or life in general, is to explore what it means to be part of this, step into and out of these spaces of interaction, to allow ourselves to be seen, even as we observe, and trust others and God with this knowledge.

God stated in the first chapter of Scripture that it was “not good” for a human to be alone. Old Testament scholar, and Wheaton colleague, John Walton points out that the declaration of the lone human as “not good” was a declaration of function.  It does not work for the human to be alone. God declared that it was not possible, at a deep existential level, for a human to be a human without other humans. Being in a space where I was closely observed, bracketed by my observations of others, became a deeply significant way of examining my life, my habitus, life in general; it was a place where I could be more human.

This could sound like Introvert Hell (as my wife suggested as I described our day’s activities), but there were a number of self-professed introverts in our group, and I don’t think they’d describe the workshop via Dante’s Inferno. In some ways, I think being in the group without having the pressure to verbalize (or even being mandated not to talk) worked better for the introverts over us inveterate gabbers.  What it did for all of us is to push us beyond our conventional ways of interacting with each other to understand our lives from new angles, in more complete and well-rounded perspectives.

At the conclusion of our workshop, I think we were all surprised by what we learned. We had had the opportunity to attend two different professional plays, engage one another directly and indirectly through our various exercises and activities, and even discuss these experiences through our own perspectives as anthropologists, literary scholars, theologians, philosophers, ecologists, and musicians. We considered and experienced ourselves as men and women, married and single, parents, children, siblings, neighbors, and friends. We could look at one another, consider the context of fatigue, distrust, anger, and fear we had walked through in the past semester, and find new resources for building trust, healing, and rest.

It all sounds a bit grandiose, perhaps.  I suppose a little drama is appropriate for reflections on a workshop such as this one. That doesn’t change the fact that this was an experience for everyone. It was a way of moving into a form of knowing, creating, observing, and evaluating our selves and our context that was embodied, non-verbal, and emotional. It will not replace reading, discussion, and writing. It cannot substitute for the detached observation of the scientific method. But these ways of knowing – this human theater – adds to our ability to access knowledge in all these spheres by growing us in a too-often-neglected way of knowing in our bodies. Turns out that the examined life is a lot more fun to live.




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