Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Zen of Improv: The Job of Nice Person (or "Thank You, Assholes.")

by Pam Victor
[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet

With all the assholes in the world, it's a full-time job to treat people with kindness, love, and compassion. If you look at my business card, you’ll see my jobs listed as “improv comedian~author~teacher~nice person.” ("Nice person" is even listed on my LinkedIn page, though I haven’t gotten any endorsements, so maybe it doesn't count.) I’m not bragging. “Nice Person” is not a natural state for me; it’s a job.

Being an instantaneously nice person is not in my gene pool. Jewish women invented the concepts of sending food back, the term “dressing on the side,” and the phrase “It’s not bad, but it needs more…” We’ve fine-tuned the shrill whine. Jews coined the term “Oy” and perfected the “Eh.” (If you’ve never heard Bubbie or Zaydeh say “Eh” or its close cousin “Feh,” you’re really missing something special.) I’m not saying Jewish people are not nice – on the contrary – I’m just saying that we may be genetically predisposed to face new experiences with judgment and high expectations. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) All I’m saying is that it’s not in my DNA to face to world first and foremost with open-minded compassion and kindness. I’m sure you’re a better person than I am. May God bless you and your beautiful children, kenahora, kenahora, pu-pu-pu.

(Seriously, you guys, this is the most Jewish I’ve ever been since my bat mitzvah.) 

Though improvisers are, on the whole, an unnaturally loving and kind group of people, there are some assholes in there, for sure. Even more common, there are nice people who are acting like assholes. I’m sure that, like me, you have worked certain special someones who act like a certain special flavors of asshole. Maybe there is that overbearing guy on your team who you’re dying to bitchslap? Or the director who is always riding your tail? Or the A.D. who never casts you on a team? Lately, I’ve been dealing with my own private asshole. Interacting and even thinking about this person fills me with the acid bile of sadness, blame, rage, and shrill whines that eat through my esophagus, heart, and mind. Oy oh oy, do I want to send this person back to the kitchen for another dish. I want to serve their fucking sauce on the side. I want a Bubbie to spoon out a big helping of Guilt Kugel for how they have treated me. And it’s at this moment, in the face of not-niceness, that I have to do my stupid "Nice Person" job the most. Not because this asshole deserves my kindness but because I do. 

What would it be like to let go of the knee-jerk response of “What a fucking asshole” blame, and instead take on the job of meeting these people with love, compassion, kindness, and the benefit of the doubt? It’s hard but important work to give assholes the benefit of the doubt. (And by “assholes,” I mean humans.) 

This Nice Person gig is such an obnoxious fucking job. 

"Coincidentally" just as I was trying to have compassion, love, and whateverthefuck for that giant dickwad in my life,  What To Do When the Going Gets Rough, penned by Pema Chödrön for the blog The Lion's Roar came across my desk. In it, she outlines four techniques for facing "difficult people or circumstances" (aka assholes): “1.) not setting up the target for the arrow, 2.) connecting with the heart, 3.) seeing obstacles as teachers, and 4.) regarding all that occurs as a dream.” Read the article for all the deets. It’s quite good.

I like #4, the part about seeing our life as a movie that we’re starring in; mostly, because I like the idea of beating out Tina Fey for the part of Me in my movie. (Even though, c’mon let’s face, Tina Fey would be a shit-ton funnier and smarter in the role.) But the element of Pema Chödrön’s article that has been most useful to me lately is the idea of seeing assholes as teachers. 
“Without the inconsiderate neighbor, where will we find the chance to practice patience? Without the office bully, how could we ever get the chance to know the energy of anger so intimately that it loses its destructive power? 
The teacher is always with us. The teacher is always showing us precisely where we’re at—encouraging us not to speak and act in the same old neurotic ways, encouraging us also not to repress or dissociate, encouraging us not to sow the seeds of suffering.”
Ok, fine. I'll bite. I asked myself, “What is this person trying to teach me?” Of course, my first response was, “To stay out of the way of d-bags like him!” But then I was able to simmer the fuck down, get out of my own way, and think about it for a moment rather than blindly react. Aha! My struggles with that particular asshole – bless his heart - set off a cascade of new thoughts that I would never had realized otherwise. The Great Spirit of "Fuck It!" was born from a beautiful, challenging human, a concept that has helped a whole bunch of my students and myself. Thank you, Professor Asshole!

I gotta come clean here. There is one asshole that stands head and shoulders above the rest in sheer level of assholism in my life. And that asshole me. I am the asshole who talks over you in the scene. I am the asshole who forgets to listen. I am the asshole bitching in the green room about all the other assholes in the show. (I am the asshole who says "asshole" so much, it doesn't make sense anymore.) Pound for pound - yes, I've lost weight, thank you for noticing - I shovel more shit into my life than any other asshole on the planet.

Love. Compassion. Kindness. The benefit of the doubt. I tell myself often that these difficult people in my life -  my Teachers of Nice – are “not assholes, though they play one on TV” (and in the Movie of the Week that is my life). We assholes are doing the best we can. Love. Compassion. Kindness. The benefit of the doubt. These mantras are my daily job and my key to good heart health. The job of Nice Person pays in inner peace, low blood pressure, and love. Best of all, you don’t have to report it on your taxes. (Fuck you, IRS*!)

*Dear IRS, Just kidding. I love you, IRS. I know you’re just doing your job. Thank you for keeping the country running. Love, Pam


In case you missed it and you're interested,

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?

Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where Pam teaches The Zen of Improv to the best students in the world as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program.  TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."   She lives online at www.pamvictor.com.

Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.

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