Wednesday, March 09, 2011

More on Finding Your Why

In the comments of yesterday's post, "Advice to a Theatre Major About to Graduate from College (Part 2)," a commenter, The Waltzing Belgian, who has experience with my approach to play analysis as described in Introduction to Play Analysis, writes:
The problem with using the analogy of the Major Dramatic Question is that the question "Will Hamlet--?" isn't answered from within, it's answered mostly based on clues from the play, from the plot, which guide it in a certain direction. This may be a good way for Nervous to concentrate her efforts: by looking at specific instances from her own past, problems she has solved, ways that she has dealt with things. Simply "soul searching" makes a great bumper-sticker, but it can lead to some radical wish-fulfillment dead-ends. If led unchecked, it could provide answers like "Hamlet really wants to explore the universe". It isn't enough to simply look within, a big part of it consists of looking back and possibly even of talking to other people as a mirror for looking at yourself.
4:21 AM
Of course, we're dealing with an analogy here, so the correspondence won't be one-to-one, but the point he is making is true: the further along in the play you are (i.e., the older you are), the easier it is to recognize the Major Dramatic Question. 

However, without going into a major play analysis geek out, I would also point out that the MD? arises when the protagonist first commits to a course of action, which we call the Moment of Engagement. This is the moment when the protagonist takes the first step along the road that is the play. In Hamlet, it occurs in Act I Sc 5, when Hamlet speaks to the Ghost of his father, who tells Hamlet he must "Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder," to which Hamlet responds, " Now to my word; It is 'Adieu, adieu! remember me.'I have sworn 't." At that moment, Hamlet commits to a course of action, and the audience wants to know whether Hamlet will kill Claudius. In other words, while the MD? is answered at the end of the play, it starts very early in the play. Had Hamlet said to the Ghost, like Dickens' Scrooge, "You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!'' we would have a very different play.

All of which is to say: you don't have to know how the play ends to find your "why." It is a commitment to a specific course of action.

But I would also agree with my waltzing friend's point that your "why" doesn't come wholly out of one's inner self. By all means, look back on your past experiences to find out the characteristics of those that gave the greatest  fulfillment. And be specific. If you really enjoyed working on a particular show, what made it fulfilling? Were there certain rehearsals that were satisfying -- what made them so? Was it working with a certain individual? What is it about them that made it fulfilling? Was it what the play had to say? And don't just confine yourself to theatre experiences. What experiences in school, on the job, in a volunteer organization did you find fulfilling, and why? You're looking to see if there is a common thread, something that can be applied to a variety of situations.

The goal is to fill your life with as many things as possible that you find fulfilling.

That's why it is a good idea to make sure you don't confuse your "why" with your "what." If you make them the same ("my why is to do theatre, because doing theatre is what gets me out of bed in the morning"), then you have only a single option. And that means you will spend much of your time frustrated and unfulfilled, define your non-theatre work in a way that is unfulfilling ("my day job is the lousy thing I have to do to put a roof over my head so I can do theatre"), and miss a lot of opportunities that will be fulfilling. Maybe even more fulfilling than theatre,

As far as "wish-fulfillment dead ends," there is nothing about this process that guarantees success. After all, Hamlet might have been killed before he revenged his father's murder. But joy comes from trying to accomplish something, and being aware of the experience as it occurs.


Charles said...

I suspect the actual space of my disagreement with you, Scott, is minimal (as it usually is). But I did want to highlight something that struck me about your framing of the issue. Here's the "too long, didn't read" version: it comes across, to me at least, as starkly individualistic.

The goal is to fill your life with as many things as possible that you find fulfilling.

George Vaillant's conclusion after spending 40 years studying happiness was that the only thing that matters is our relationship to other people. Another writer I admire says, emphasis mine, that every day should be a struggle for self improvement in the service of improving the world. There is a distinction between what is fulfilling and what you find fulfilling, and in your early twenties (as elsewhere, make no mistake) those two things can come rather dramatically apart.

I don't think it does sufficient justice to your waltzing friend's point to suggest mining one's own personal experience in this pursuit. What actions are feasible, what actions are right, what actions are beautiful, has very deeply to do with the other people in our lives and how we relate to them and them to us. Perhaps, perhaps, a soul searching that takes the form of "" will not result in the fulfillment one seeks.

Scott Walters said...

I'm not sure I would agree that it is individualistic. Your Vaillant reference, which I totally agree with, is still about personal happiness, as is personal improvement in service to the world. A joyless, unhappy person trying to have a relationship with another person and to improve the world will, I suspect, cause all kinds of negative outcomes for everyone involved. However, I think you have to look at what you find fulfilling, and then connect it to the world. I would agree with that completely. Not everyone will like that, but I think it ultimately is true.

Charles said...

Three points, likely none in conflict with what you believe:

(1) "[P]ersonal improvement in service to the world [is still about personal happiness". There is a sense in which this is true, but compare: working in a soup kitchen is still about food service. Maybe this refinement of my earlier point will help: personal fulfillment should be looked at as a means to an end, not the endgame of your life's work. Again, in essence I don't think we disagree, but the clarion call of "Personal Fulfillment!" -- which remember, is directed to college students without overtones of responsibility, worthiness of the goal, and personal sacrifice rings a bit eerie to me.

(2) This is not a criticism of your view, but a refinement of it: sometimes, what is fulfilling is in competition with something else that is fulfilling. I would find it fulfilling to read this book or work on some writing, but if I do so at the expense of spending time with my family, then maybe that's not so fulfilling after all. Translating "what you find fulfilling" into "doing what you find fulfilling" involves moral decisions and seeing yourself as and being "the kind of person who..." Resolving that kind of conflict -- making 'right' choices in light of other people -- cannot be done by e.g. mining one's own personal experience alone. A mirror is not a substitute for another human being.

(3) I don't want this to derail the overall discussion via this comment, but "you have to look at what you find fulfilling, and then connect it to the world" is not value neutral, and in particular is fairly specific to WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) societies. This is not a criticism of your view, just a situating of who it is for.

Scott Walters said...

Charles -- You're right, we're not in much disagreement. Let me propose an equation as a distillation: personal fulfillment + commitment to the Greater Good = a good life. And I mean the Greater Good very broadly -- it might simply be the family.

As far as point 2 is concerned, I think this examination only is applicable to the macro scale -- when it comes to individual decisions, things become much more complex. In The Alchemist, Coehlo talks about a caravan crossing the desert making many twists and turns as it navigates the desert terrain, but always moving toward the star it is moving toward. The star is your "why," the twists and turns are the individual choices that must be made at any point along the journey.

Point 3: Granted. That's who I'm writing for. WEIRD is clever. Glib, but clever nonetheless.

Charles said...

I'd love to have earned the credit, but I didn't coin the WEIRD acronym. It's from a recent Brain & Behavioral Science article entitled "The Weirdest People in the World".

"Broad claims about human psychology and behavior based on narrow samples from Western societies are regularly published. Are such species‐generalizing claims justified? This review suggests not only substantial variability in experimental results across populations in basic domains, but that standard subjects are unusual compared with the rest of the species—outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, spatial reasoning, moral reasoning, thinking‐styles, and self‐concepts. This suggests (1) caution in addressing questions of human nature from this slice of humanity, and (2) that understanding human psychology will require broader subject pools. We close by proposing ways to address these challenges."

If anyone finds that interesting, the PDF is here.

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