A while ago, I learned that one of the central rules of improvisational comedy is that whatever happens during the course of the skit, the actor must say “yes, and then….” The rule is to accept what is established and then to add to it. Recently I’ve been thinking about how different our lives are when we take the basic default attitude of “yes, and.” A friend asks us about a book or movie, we respond with “yes, it was good! And there were these interesting parts…” Thus begins a dialogue and a connection. But then, sometimes we want to sound intelligent and discriminating. We reply, “It was terrible! Poorly developed. Stupidly enacted.” There is an off-putting quality to that no and a kind of closure that results in disconnection.
It is not that we can always say yes. It is a question of what our first inclination says. If we start from yes, we can always revise to no. But when we start from no, sometimes we do not even get a chance to revise. We have closed down an avenue, a conversation, an experience before we know if we want it.
The basis of being able to say yes is a structure of trust. Trust that the world is a benign place and trust that other people are fundamentally benevolently intentioned. It is not blind trust or illusional trust. It is a trust that arises from an internal conviction that we can rely on the people we care about and we can rely on ourselves. This trust can be created early by having a reliable environment and parents. It can be built later in the context of repeated experiences in a committed relationship. Sometimes it is built in therapy; sometimes it is in marriage; sometimes it is in friendships. Trust has to be constructed in a one-to-one relationship context, but once it becomes a true internal structure, it stays built.
“Want to go to a movie?”
“YES! AND then we can get coffee.”
“Want to read this book?”
“YES! AND then we can talk about it.”
Not just people, but events and circumstances invite us to engage with life. An opportunity closes to us or a problem develops. We respond with a renewed energy to find a new direction or develop ourselves in the context of solving a problem. I was once talking to a man who had saved his money for many years to take his family on an international vacation. In the midst of the vacation, one of his parents became gravely ill. The family had to cut short their vacation and return home.
“What a loss for you, ” I said.
“Not at all,” He replied, “I had several weeks of very wonderful conversations with my parent while they recovered in the hospital.”
We can be enriched by an attitude of “yes, and.” We accept into our lives experiences that are unfamiliar or challenging, and we grow from them. We make an effort to get out of our comfort zone and connect with something or someone outside of ourselves. It is easy to forget the potential in the challenges we encounter and to stay in our familiar spheres. But then we miss people and experiences that we could have engaged with. One of the saddest losses is an unseen opportunity that eludes us without our even being aware of the loss.