About fifteen years ago, the great jazz musician Wynton Marsalis performed a rendition of Victor Young’s ballad from the 1930s, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You.” Marsalis performed unaccompanied, and according to David Hadju in The Atlantic, it was a wrenching, masterful performance. Right at the climax of the song—terrible luck!—someone’s cell phone rang, a cacophony of electronic noise. The spell broken, the patron making his walk of shame to the exit, Marsalis paused for a moment—but only a moment.
Then he replayed the cell-phone ringtone, note for note. And he began to improvise on it, making variations on the tune. Slowly, the musical spell was cast again, and the audience returned to him. He changed the key, slowed the tempo . . . and then, incredibly, picked up exactly where he left off in the song.
Without the interruption, the audience would have heartily applauded the virtuoso performance. But thanks to the interruption and Marsalis’s graceful way of embracing it, the ovation was tremendous. He had heard the obstacle with gracious ears.
Here Marsalis embodies the improv principle of Yes-And: to receive what is offered, on stage or in life, and to build on it in a positive, interesting, life-giving way. Even mistakes can be “Yes-Anded” with the right intention and care.
To be oriented to yes-and is to be oriented toward hope—What would it mean to be oriented toward the hopeful as a default—in other words, to assume first that there must be a Yes, and then to look for it? Some of us are naturally oriented toward pessimism—and I’m one of them. When something goes awry, I’m a champ at catastrophizing. The plan isn’t just off the rails; it’s The Worst Thing That Could Have Happened. This takes a special kind of skill—in fact, I’m pretty sure I read an article that says pessimists are more creative than optimists. (I may be making that up, but don’t tell me otherwise. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)
Still, catastrophizing doesn’t make for good improv, whether we’re performing onstage or living life. Catastrophizing keeps us fearful, suspicious, and stuck. Instead, I’ve been challenging myself to experience my life with a different orientation. Hope means that God works through our broken places. Hope means there’s always another Yes to pursue. As poet Wendell Berry advises, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
An improvised jazz performance is all well and good, but what happens when life hands us the worst heartbreak imaginable?
Sheryl Sandberg, an executive at Facebook, experienced the anguish of her husband’s sudden death while they were on vacation. In an instant, Sandberg became a young widow with two small children at home. Since then she’s had to learn how to live within a life that doesn’t look anything like what she’d planned.
A few weeks after Dave died, she says, “I was talking to my friend Phil about a father-son activity that Dave was not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, ‘But I want Dave.’ Phil put his arm around me and said, ‘Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the s— out of option B.’”
You may bristle at the profanity, but I find it energizing and honest. Finding the Yes-And amid horrible circumstances and the death of Plan A is defiant and stubborn: We’re gonna make something redemptive out of this mess.
The meaning each of us makes from the experiences of our lives is ours and ours alone. I’ll stand in the way of anyone who tries to connect the dots for anyone else. But either way, life hands us our share of disappointments, failures, and dashed dreams. And as Sandberg told an audience after her husband’s death, “It is the hard days — the times that challenge you to your very core — that will determine who you are. You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.”
When the unexpected happens, our reaction is often compounded by a sense of shock—I did not see that coming. Such a shock is unsettling, and can lead us to facile explanations about God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason, we tell ourselves; we just don’t know what it is.
I myself don’t believe our defeats and tragedies are by God’s design. They’re by-products of randomness, human frailty, and free will that make up the world we live in. But even if there were a plan, what would it matter? At every moment, the question is, Now what? What’s our next move? An improvising God calls us to see what we can see—the situation right in front of us, no matter how surprising, annoying, or downright deplorable—and find the best Yes-And possible.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana (MDiv ’03) is a writer, pastor and speaker living in Northern Virginia. She is author of Sabbath in the Suburbs, and the recently released God, Improv , and the Art of Living. She was recently featured on PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly for her work on Sabbath and was recognized by the Presbyterian Writers Guild with the 2015-2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award. She is a sought-after speaker, preacher, conference leader and writer around issues of leadership, faith formation, technology, and congregational transformation. She is a mother of three, a haphazard knitter, and an occasional marathoner. Connect with her at her website, The Blue Room.
This blogpost was adapted from God, Improv, and the Art of Living, Mary Ann McKibben Dana’s latest book, available for order here.
Blessed at the Broken Places is for people interested in biblical spirituality as a resource for validating and supporting the faith of people in emotional pain. Participants will include spiritual directors, pastoral caregivers, counselors and therapists, spirituality certificate program participants, and people of faith who seek biblical study and dialogue for insight and renewal amid grief and other forms of emotional suffering. Registration for the July 26-29, 2018 class is open here.