Wednesday, September 02, 2015

learning to say THANK YOU

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Image from theguardian.com
September is here and school is about to start for another year. This term I will be working as both a teaching assistant and a research assistant in addition to finishing (fingers crossed) my doctoral dissertation (except for final rewrites). Some people have remarked that going from teaching a course at the university to being a teaching assistant seems like a step backwards. I don't see it that way. Every chance to be in the classroom is an opportunity to participate in another learning experience, a privilege I do not take for granted. Being a TA is a gift, actually: the professor does all the heavy lifting and takes ultimate responsibility for what happens in the course while I get to enjoy theological discussions and reading materials, grade (mostly) interesting assignments, answer questions from students, and exchange theological jokes with my fellow TA during class. No down side!

Seriously, though, I have found that being a student and a life-long learner means swallowing ones pride and sense of entitlement. When I spent a year in the Theatre Department, all of the students were very talented and bright, all were more educated and experienced in theatre than I was, and they all knew each other. Also, due to a bad experience with another doctoral student, one of my professors was unsure about me and how I would fit into her class. Yep, I was a bit nervous that first day, but, as you quickly learn in the theatrical context, you have to jump in and participate or you won't get anything out of it, so I did. I loved my theatre classes and found them to be places of mutual support and encouragement.

This summer I attended a session at a conference hosted by the Association of Theatre in Higher Education. There were no lectures in this particular session: all the chairs were pushed aside and we moved around the room in various directed exercises: individually, in pairs, and as a group. We got some things right and we got some things wrong, but we learned as we went. At the end, the facilitators, who mostly work in corporate and education settings, remarked on how willing and responsive everyone was and how we all "got" the exercises quickly. even the challenge of working together as one unit.

One of the things that was said in that workshop was that we need to learn to fail joyfully and with gratitude. We did an exercise where one person offered a gesture to the other. Instead of acting on it, the second person would simply take a moment to observe it, then return the first person to neutral position. The one who offered the gesture was directed to say, "Thank you," to the other for considering their offer even though they did not take action on it. In actual practice, both the givers and the spectators in several groups (including mine) ended up saying, "Thank you," to each other because we forgot who was meant to be thanking whom. Gratitude was everywhere! It was good practice to get used to offering something without assuming it would be acted upon, and to be not only okay with that, but grateful for the opportunity. It also reminded me that it is important to take the time to look and listen to someones offer/idea, giving them the dignity of being heard and seen, even if their idea may ultimately be rejected. The repeated utterances of "Thank you" around the room showed us how quickly an atmosphere of joy and camaraderie can be created by gratitude.

Another thing I learned, especially in my Playwriting class, is that the creative process is going to be longer than we think it should be, so we need to practice patience and diligence. Rewrites and edits and more rewrites are necessary if the characters and the work are to have real depth. and that doesn't happen overnight. Writers need to hear others speak their words in order to know if they ring true. When I saw my characters interact in the flesh, I was immediately able to pinpoint where my story was false, where it was overly simplistic or too complex, where it did not progress naturally, and where it was awkward and unrealistic. Don't get discouraged by the rewrites, our professor told us; trust the process to do its work. And to that I would add, enjoy the creative journey, rejoice in the failures and the roadblocks and the victories, because all of them are part of bringing something new to life.

For the past five months or so, I have sat in my office and pecked away at a keyboard, writing word after word and chapter after chapter of my doctoral dissertation. I try to find joy in the task everyday (some days it takes me longer to get to joy, I must admit), I try to be grateful every day for the unique opportunity given to me to study theology and theatre, and I try to be patient with the process, trusting that the thoughts and the ideas and the words will come. I try never to be discouraged for long, but to keep going back to the work, even if it means deleting most of the words I wrote yesterday. What I am discovering is that both theology and theatre put us in situations where we are expected to take huge risks and to be okay with making mistakes. Instead of being discouraged by our failures and shortcomings, we are to learn from them, to find joy hidden within them, and then get right back in there and try again.

Let today be another day when I jump in and risk, when I get better at navigating the tricky waters of progress and growth, and when all the ups and downs of work and life and love lead me to say, "Thank you."

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