The world in which we live invites you to lean back and relax at every turn. Most obviously when we turn on the TV or look down at our tablets and iphones, we do so for entertainment. Even the news is more about driving ratings and viewership than about informing and engaging.
The message of sitting back and relaxing is pervasive. Maybe it comes from lives that are too busy, but maybe it runs deeper than that. Social media connects you to people, but it does so more by offering a platform to share videos of dogs riding skateboards under cars than by discussing what’s going on in the world. And opportunities to sit back and relax are being provided by the creeping phenomenon of domestic outsourcing: we take our laundry to the cleaners, we have the house cleaned, we eat out, all to allow us more time for what is important…for being entertained. In a world where we look for opportunities to sit back and relax, the idea of “leaning forward” might be a little novel. But I think it is really important.
I recently went to watch a performance at one of my favorite small theaters, The Theatrical Outfit, who perform at the Balser Theater on Luckie Street in Downtown Atlanta. At the beginning of the performance the artistic director Tom Key invited the audience – as he does at every performance – to “Lean forward and prepare to be transformed”.
First Tom admonishes the audience to “lean forward.” He says this in perhaps the archetypal setting for sitting back and relaxing, and his words stand in intentional and stark counterpoint to that phrase. It’s easy to let them slip by, but if you’re paying attention, they are quite striking.
Leaning forward is about being engaged. It’s not just about paying attention, but more than that: it implies a certain level of critical awareness, of curiosity, of desire to learn, to participate, to get involved.
Prepare To Be Transformed
Tom doesn’t just tell us to bring this level of awareness to bear, but he tells us to “prepare to be transformed”. Not “be transformed”, but “prepare to be transformed”. He is inviting us to adopt a particular state of mind, an openness to see things differently, to learn something truly new, to be surprised. He is inviting us to feel something we have never felt before and to grow.
How often do you intentionally engage in the world with a mind that open? How often do you attend a business meeting, or visit with your family, or attend a social gathering with the intent of seeing things differently? Society trains us to bring an agenda, a position, and to be advocates in our business world, and in all areas of life to assume our role and follow it. We know who others are, they know who we are, and those static identities are just the way it is!
“Prepared to be transformed” describes the state of mind you had when you were a child. It’s how you behaved when the world and everything in it was new, when you were soaking it up like a sponge. Tom is asking us to bring this attitude to the theater. The work of The Theatrical Outfit is not about telling stories to entertain; it is about using the power of storytelling as myth and metaphor to help us fully engage us in our own lives.
The Power of Myth and Metaphor
Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers famously engaged in their “The Power of Myth” conversations which dove into how the timeless themes and symbols of ancient narratives tune into something central to the human experience. They talked about the gods and goddesses of ancient Rome and Greece, of the traditions the world’s faiths, and of what those mean to us today.
But the power of myth and metaphor is more than the universality of their themes. We use myth and metaphor as a means of indirect communication of powerful truths that can’t be told directly. The Homeric Epics, stories of an ornately embellished pseudo-history, were the backbone of Greek moral and social philosophy and culture for hundreds of years. They are not a list of rules or beliefs; rather they are stories of men and women in extraordinary circumstances, stories which listeners referred back to again and again to divine how they should behave in ordinary circumstances.
When we listen to the story of Odysseus’s journey and his encounters, we hear a story of an superhuman man with the ordinary human ambition to come home. His amazing mythical encounters with the lotus eaters; with Polyphemus, the Cyclops; with Aeolus, god of the winds; with Circe and so many more, all connect directly to our ordinary life in a way that we intuit, but which only works when presented in this indirect way. The overall story arc of a hero who yearns above all to come home, even at the cost of forsaking immortality, and of the braggadocio that ultimately costs him the life of his crew and nearly destroys him, is a profoundly human story from which the Greeks drew to define and shape their everyday lives for centuries. And it is not a story that can be read and understood once; it offers a framework to which we can refer back again and again.
“Leaning Forward” In Everyday Life
As we become adults we lose the ability to lean forward. We have matured and grown and know how to live our lives. We know how things work and how people behave and what is right and wrong. We have experience and wisdom and responsibilities. Our lives – your life – are hard, and on those rare occasions when you get a break, the last thing you need is to lean forward; you need to chill!
But the point of the myth is that we can never really know directly or completely. If we look closely there is always something more – and it is often an important something more. The point of learning to lean forward is to recognize that our everyday lives are full of assumptions, of judgments, of blind spots. Just as the play is a metaphor for our lives, one from which we can draw timeless lessons, so, too the idea of leaning forward in the play is a metaphor for leaning forward in our lives.
Leaning forward in the play is about being willing, through really paying attention, to see things we would otherwise miss, to see through our assumptions and judgments. If you are willing to take this leap of faith watching a play, to engage in conversation about it afterwards, perhaps you might be willing to start to do so in your life? To reflect on something you experienced and be willing to examine your behavior, your assumptions? To wonder whether there is something you can learn, an opportunity to grow that would make you a better person.
The current season of presidential primaries is a great example of an opportunity to lean in – an opportunity that is being missed by many, maybe even most of the citizenry of this country.
Pause for a moment and reflect honestly: when you watch the political debates, when you read articles about the candidates and their opinions, are you leaning forward and listening with an open mind, with the willingness to learn and grow? Are you really reflecting on the deeper messages of the candidates, and of the real human beings, the mothers and fathers and children and lovers, who are resonating with messages that may variously leave you cold or repulse you? Are you recognizing that you don’t hold the universal truth, that all of these others are real human beings with just as much human value as you, and that maybe, just maybe, there might be something in this story that is bigger than your own preferences and hopes for the final outcome?
Prepare To Be Transformed
Preparing to be transformed is the natural corollary to leaning forward. If you truly have the attitude of leaning forward, of engaging with your whole being, of applying intention and curiosity, you are bringing to the table a willingness to be transformed.
But it’s hard to fully lean in.
Fully leaning in means being willing to leave all of your preconceptions behind, to look with a fresh and completely open mind.
The reason it’s hard is that you are smart, your are educated, and your life’s experiences have taught you what is right and wrong, taught you how to behave, taught you what to believe. You have developed wisdom.
But have you really?
In my experience the truly wise do not assert their wisdom. More than that, true wisdom is antithetical to strongly held beliefs and judgment. True wisdom emerges out of a life well lived as a softening, as a growing into recognizing that it is not our possessions and status that matter, but relationships and compassion and the kind of world we leave behind. There is something childlike and innocent about the truly wise.
The ultimate transformation is a transformation of your state of being. It is opening up. It is about beginning to recognize how big and how beautiful and how incredible the world really is. It is about deeply seeing the other and feeling your heart open in compassion. It is about awakening to a deep knowing that the world is not about you. This transformation is perhaps the birth of a new kind of humility.
It is finding your place in the universe and the meaning of your life. It is seeing what must be done and rolling up your sleeves to do it. It is forgetting yourself and your ambitions for material comfort and wealth as you do so. This is a spiritual awakening. It sounds intimidating, it sounds scary, but as you look around, you know that those who have gone before you have found joy and meaning.
So lean forward and prepare to be transformed.