Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Of Monkeys, Dogs, and Phooles

"The Vagabond," equivalent of "The Fool" card
from  Brian Williams' SHIP OF FOOLS Tarot.
A warning:  This essay is a bit serious-ish. And there is swearing in it. But if you can bear it, I hope you'll read it.

After my mother died over a decade ago, I went through an extremely miserable and difficult time, during which I hit absolute bottom -- my mother had been an alcoholic, and I had been a textbook example of a co-dependent enabler.  My mother had frequently told me that I was the reason she drank:  if I were present, she drank because she couldn't stand what a disappointment I was, and if I were absent, she drank because I had abandoned her. She once said to me, "Why would you want to be an actress?  You're fat and disgusting.  Why would you deliberately ask people to look at you?"  After she died, my subconscious continued to castigate me on her behalf: I loathed myself; I felt hideous and unloveable; I felt untalented and worthless; I felt like a gigantic fraud who'd be found out at any moment.  I'd always over-sought approval, and, according to much-missed friend, advisor and Adlerian therapist Sherwin Rubenstein (R.I.P), I probably always will, but at the time, my chorus of inner condemnations reverberated throughout every part of my life.  I welcomed and encouraged hateful exploitation and abuse from every quarter - relationships, dayjobs, shows, friendships. I lost all hope. So I began to shop for a therapist.

I eventually ended up with a fantastic counselor, but the first therapist I visited, after listening to me for an hour, said merely this:

"You know what the problem with YOU is?  You're too nice.  The world is full of assholes, and if you're going to survive, you have to become an asshole too."

Shocked, I fired him after that one session. I feebly shopped my desolation around until I happened on a wonderful counselor who, through simple grandmotherly truths, genuinely helped me rebound into the silly girl with whom you spend time nowadays.

But that awful statement smoldered, buried, in my brain ever since that day.  "You have to become an asshole too."  I just didn't want to believe it, regardless of the evidence.

I know I'm always going on about Machiavelli, but he and his work fascinate me.  Inextricably entangled in Renaissance politics, he resisted playing the game, and when the game finally brought him down, THE PRINCE was his warning to future players.  As enticing and exciting as the game of social dominance appears, I don't want to play it.  I played it briefly; it's a lot of work, and it yields no useful reward whatsoever.

So, swallowing my anxiety about that statement from my first therapist, I rebuilt my life. In play, I turned the corner and discovered the audience, and the bliss I found in connecting with patrons obliterated everything else. It drove me to maximize my game, push my research, develop my brand, get more gigs, and only take the gigs I really wanted to take.  Even if that first counselor were right - even if it were impossible to succeed by making people happy, if the only solution were to armor myself with cynicism and bitter distrust - I would try to prove the opposite.

I then directed the Street Theatre cast at the Bristol Renaissance Faire for ten years, and with them, I tried to share positivity, inclusion, and elevation. I worked to encourage characters who would esteem patrons at higher social status than themselves, include patrons in the fun, and make the characters' success contingent on patrons' involvement and enjoyment.  The brilliant Douglas Mumaw and David Woolley inspired me with the Swordsmen's tag line:  "Share the Niceness."   And so many other successful walkaround performers, whether they played heroes who already championed the audience or villains who included patrons in their evil empires, gave me hope that inclusion, elevation, esteem and invested excitement could prevail over bitterness, hierarchichal obsession, and cynicism.

Still, that statement hung with me, crackling in the back of my mind. I've always been haunted by the fear that maybe he was right.  Maybe people are simply horrible, and it's not possible to survive without becoming horrible too.  I enjoy Dario Maestripieri's book MACACHIAVELLIAN INTELLIGENCE: HOW RHESUS MACACQUES AND HUMANS HAVE CONQUERED THE WORLD, because I think monkeys are hilarious, and I like watching them mirror human qualities -- but at the same time, the book fills me with dread, because Maestripieri posits that one chief factor in human and rhesus macacque world dominance is the fact that both species adhere to a strict social hierarchy, in which sycophants gain advantage by supplicating their betters, and in which niceness is a liability, not an asset.

I was horrified further to realize that this Machiavellian paradigm played out fully in so many spheres in my life. Creative, helpful people are constantly supplanted by scheming, talentless flatterers.  People who dedicate themselves fully to their work and to the betterment of organizations or communities are run over by servile supplicants kissing the backsides of the people in power.  Experience, discipline and brilliance are traded in for obsequiousness and compliance. Power wants nothing but more power, and nowhere in the Great Chain of Being does there appear to be room for someone who just wants to make people happy.

So: last night, I watched a NOVA program about dogs called DOGS DECODED.

Humans are genetically quite close to the monkeys and apes whose Machiavellian antics amuse (AND dismay) me so mightily. But the species who's responsible for human civilization?  It's dogs.  Puppehs. I learned immense, mind-blowing things about dogs and their relationships with people, and it shook my world. You have to see this program.  It's genuinely mind-blowing. You can read a transcript of the show here, and if you have Netflix, it's available for instant viewing, or you can buy a DVD of the show here. Dogs have been by our side for tens of thousands of years, and they helped humans grow from hunter-gatherers to civilized beings. Through domestication (domestic dogs are descended from wolves), dogs are adept at reading human emotion, and they're the only animal that does that without training. Dogs have developed barks that humans instinctively, correctly interpret for meaning. Dogs respond to human pointing gestures, regardless of whether or not they've been trained to do so.  Through the generations needed for full domestication of the canine species, humans originally selected "nice" dogs for breeding - and as dogs were bred for "niceness," all of the other variations (for which breeders currently select) emerged on their own.

And because humans have lived with dogs for so many tens of thousands of years, we've evolved a very special bond with one another, convergently.  When a dog interacts with the dog's owner, the interaction triggers the release of oxytocin in the hypothalamus. Oxytocin is a peptide hormone, and it's the same one that's released in the hypothalamus of mothers and babies while babies are nursing.  It's the chemical key to that primal bond.  It lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, and it reduces stress levels.  Experiencing frequent oxytocin triggering extends your life.

Playing with your dog - being happy - is good for you, in other words. It's very, very good for you.  Everyone I know who has dogs who's reading this right now is saying, "Duh."  But I don't have a dog (and I'll have to get a lot of allergy shots when I DO get a dog), so I didn't innately understand this. And this idea exploded my heart.

Because, after I'd watched the entire show, and processed and digested it, I thought:

"What if I'm actually helping people after all?"

When one plays as a walkaround character at Renaissance Faires, one frequently hears, "Oh, you're so good!  You should be in REAL theater."  It's a lot like this cartoon. 

So I'm constantly told that no matter how I strive to make my product awesome, chances are it's regarded as silly, amateurish and inconsequential on the List of Things That Actually Make a Difference in Life.  And throughout our culture, we are, all of us, continually reminded that individuals do not matter, that everyone is replaceable, and that real reward only comes if you are a sycophant or a cruel tyrant.  Add to that my own personal inner chorus of judges (thanks, Mom!), and every little day becomes a daunting prospect.

But this program, full of wagging tails and happy barks and oxytocin releases, made me think:

Am I less like a monkey, and more like a dog?

Is it possible that patrons derive a genuine benefit from spending time with me?  Are we doing something greater than merely wasting time together talking rubbish?  Is our shared play good for our health? Can our time spent enjoying each other actually be improving both of our lives?  Am I relieving people's stress so that they can, in turn, maybe help other people?

Is it okay to just make people happy?

Am I actually useful?

It shakes me to think that that might be true.


Mary said...

Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.

ChrisLast said...

I feel better about myself and the world around me after spending time with certain people. I made a conscious decision after my father passed this year that I want to surround myself with those types of people. You know what's happened in my life? I'm more productive, I'm retaining knowledge more, loosing weight, and building better and healthier relationships.

We are not designed to be monkeys, but a higher form of primate. One that understands and pushes for more than just social station and ego.

Stephen said...

I've not seen you perform, per say, but spending time with you was a highlight of my trip to RF last year. I offer this as proof that your theory is correct.

Elizabeth said...

Perhaps the new phrase to collect in many languages could be "happy puppy." I contribute the Bosnian: sretan štene (sdray-tahn shtay-nay)

Jane the Phoole said...

INTRIGUING IDEA. I shall consider!