That’s nice, but it’s not about what YOU want…

The other day at WiseFool circus camp, we were doing partner acrobatics. In one move, I was spotting someone to fly. She was flying with her hips on the feet of her base – a person on the ground, with legs straight up. When we finished practicing, we decided that I might have been doing too strong a spot for the flyer.

That is, I was not just lightly placing my hands underneath her legs, in case she should start to fall. Instead, I was applying a bit of pressure, actively holding her and perhaps even pushing her legs upwards. Such active pushing would mess with her balance in a delicate maneuver.

At the time, I swore I was only giving a light spot. Maybe, however, I was unconsciously holding up and directing the flyer’s legs. So what? Well, if I were doing that, it would throw her balance. Why would I do that? Because I wanted to be useful, to be playing a part. This has got me thinking: When does helping others become more about helping my self – and as a consequence I get in the way of the very people I claim I am helping or serving?

It is a week after the day we did that acrobatics exercise. I am now in a class to delve more deeply into clowning. The other day in clown class, we were performing in pairs. The performance was improvised. The same challenges that I’ve experienced in creating  general theatrical improv scenes arose in our clowning. One of these challenges included that of getting caught up in the story running through my head and thus becoming rigid in my relationship with my clowning partners.  A question arose: What can I give to this partnership that would help us step more imaginatively and freely into a flow of giving-and-receiving to each other and the audience?

At the heart of these two circus performance questions is  the idea that sometimes we are more constructive and useful when we step back, keep quiet and/or be still. I know for me, this can feel uncomfortable. I want to be doing something. I want to be useful.

Oh, what a word! I recently was having a conversation with a church leader as part of an interview process for my involvement in a possible collaborative initiative. After I answered some of her questions, she reflected back to me: “You want to take on this role to feel useful.” I was mortified when I heard this. I thought – geez, is that what is going on? I’m not doing this to serve or support others, I’m doing this to satisfy my need to be useful. This is all about me?

When I think about it now, the idea of wanting to do something to be useful doesn’t seem so mortifying. I generally tend to think it is a fairly common human desire to want to be of use. Yet, at the time it was put to me it sounded so selfish. And I think that is the point. Yes, it is okay to want to be useful.

What is important to ask along with that, however, is “How can I be of use?” This is in contrast to saying/declaring “I want to be useful!” and then setting about trying to do things for people that they don’t want or need. Or setting about doing things for people in ways that, as I possibly did when I was spotting in acrobatics, actually undermine them.

Ultimately, in a clown performance, the aim is to connect with the audience.  The aim is to give to the audience. The aim is not to win the ‘I am the best clown’ prize or to have people love you or even have people like you (I imagine that in a heartfelt, generous clown performance, while the clown will be liked by most people, s/he might also make some people feel uncomfortable).

The aim isn’t about filling my need to be useful.

It is about being generous and giving of my self in ways that are supportive of others, that encourage people to step into their full power.

Is early days for me with clowning and partner acrobatics. In both, I’m finding that awareness of how I am relating to other people (and sometimes objects) is really critical.  We have been told to observe, observe, observe. Work with stillness. Work with silence. Listen to your partners.

This seems like a good direction for anyone wanting to serve others – observe, listen and be prepared to be still and hands-off. People (audience, fellow acrobat, fellow clown) are partners and co-creators rather than objects/targets of my desire to be useful.

What’s your experience of seeking to help or serve others in ways that end up curtailing their power rather than unleashing it? In what ways might you be objectifying people in your relationships – turning them into targets of your desires and needs for self-affirmation? What is your experience of working with others as co-creators working to manifest a common purpose?

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