The first rule of improvisational theater is to say yes to whatever comes your way. When your fellow actor hands you a toothbrush, don’t bring the show to a stop and demand a corkscrew. Say yes. When you accidentally trip over your shoelaces, don’t get flustered. Say yes as though you intended to be clumsy. When the audience begins throwing tomatoes, don’t depart in shame. Say yes; keep going.
Actually, the complete rule is to say, “Yes, and…” So wise! Accept what is, and respond, asserting your own values and dreams and creation. Isn’t this the dance of every moment? The contractor pours the footing in the wrong place: Yes, and we can throw a fit or move it. Gwyn gets a bad cold: Yes, and I can resent the missed work or relax into a day of books and movies. A fire destroys all my belongings: Yes, and I have a chance to reflect on my relationship to material goods; I can choose to be embittered by this loss, or opened wide.
Sometimes I miss the old fashioned practice of reading the psalms responsively during Sunday morning worship. The pastor’s solitary voice calls out a verse and the whole congregation responds with another. This back and forth, hearing and speaking, accepting and acting, is fundamental to the life of faith—and to any life lived with graceful presence. What have I been given? What will I do with it?
“Yes, and…” resides at the sharp, uncomfortable intersection between two polar opposites: Submission to fated circumstance and willful, created change. James Baldwin’s embrace of this paradox has been a long-time guide for me:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.
Yes, this is the way the world is. Yes, this is what I’m given. And, in response, I get to make choices, changes, and a new world. Both are happening, in this and every moment.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew