Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Time for Questioning

a conversation about self-exploration with yannis simonides

CG: You've been touring the world, solo-performing Plato's Apology; where to me you nearly channel Socrates; who was spot on 22 centuries ago about the examined life and the virtuous way to be. Yet 22 centuries later, we’re still struggling as a society with living and behaving in right(er) ways.

Where are the clues, the insights we need?

YS: They’re right there in Plato’s text of The Apology. Plato’s and Socrates’ systems of thought, their philosophies, are still fundamental models to study and listen to – and emulate.

CG: Can we achieve a more virtuous culture?

YS: We can, but only to the degree we honestly examine our lives and apply the findings that flow from this self-examination.

Socrates said virtue is knowledge; that the only way to reach knowledge and therefore virtue, is to study, to examine and to have the opportunity to do so.

If we spend the time to have a dialectic, an investigation, a reasoning with ourselves, and not stop until we arrive at the truth – a truth that satisfies us (or satisfies us and whoever we’re engaging with, a boss, a friend, another nation)…we will be greatly rewarded.

We need to be willing to live in a culture of questions not one of ready answers. It’s a more courageous approach. And it takes more time. But it’s worth it. It serves us better in the long run as individuals and as a society, by giving us stronger foundations for our lives and for our world.

When I talk about questioning, and avoiding dogma, and achieving a change for the better in our entire ethos, it’s relevant because success here has to do with listening more versus trying to speak more.

It’s time for us to fall silent and listen. To begin.

CG: I’m reminded of Rainer Maria Rilke’s words from his Letters to a Young Poet, where he said: Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them… the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

YS: Each of us can initiate these kind of conversations, with ourselves and with others – in our families, our workplaces, our social circles; our communities, and our governments.

Socrates was never dogmatic in the way he talked. His approach was always propositions; suggestions; ways to consider being; invitations to question and discuss.

CG: Why do the simple wisdoms of Socrates, as you present the philosopher and his ideas, resonate so strongly today especially among the youth of many different countries? You’ve experienced this firsthand in and after your performances, from Athens to Dubai to Uruguay.

YS: Because it isn’t dogma. Because it engages them in questions and questioning. Because there’s great respect and dignity; a belief in peaceful co-existence; benevolent laws; an unwillingness to harm. Also because there’s no imposition of false gods or one’s own gods or ideas on them. Living to the best and fullest is the aim. These are all great gifts and inspirations for the youth of all cultures.

These are also things, deep inside, as you discover in The Apology, that we all – no matter what our politics or backgrounds – acknowledge as valuable.

The youth of today listen to Socrates because, like them, he’s not afraid to take a piss. He wasn’t afraid, as most of us are, to risk losing a job, a career, a relationship, by opening his mouth to say right and needed things. His philosophy teaches courage; it teaches examining yourself; and learning on your own more about yourself…and about what’s right and wrong – so it all becomes self evident. And in this process you become virtuous.

CG: You see a problem with the popular desire for immediate solutions, especially in dealing with crises or monumental issues personally or on a wider scale.

YS: This is a trap we fall into: looking for easy answers. Stop instead. Take a breath. Take a walk. Consider. Call a friend or colleague and have a conversation. Don’t take pride in being a man or woman ‘of action.’ No one knows enough about life to face a crisis and say they have the absolute answer. Yet this is how so much of society has acted for so long.

CG: As a long-time actor, director, teacher, radio host, you’ve mastered the art of communicating; dramatically, effectively, memorably. What are the ingredients that contributed most crucially to your mastery? What advice would you give about achieving effective communications?

YS: Empathy. Patience. Listening. Humor. Humility. And, a willingness to understand what communication actually is and should be: a two-way street; a full circle: you put something out and wait for a message to come back to you; that tells you your message was received and fully understood, as intended. Then you have communicated.

It’s the difference between the teacher who talks with you, engages you, and the one who gets up and just reads from a text; talks at you.

We can never be presumptuous about our audiences; we can’t label them.

Why? Because there’s so much more to people. Therefore, explore them; test them, as an actor would do. What is this house like, that you have before you? Is every Broadway theatre audience the same? No: the energy and interest and point of view of each group vary greatly. Those who ignore this dynamic are not the best communicators; they cannot communicate effectively.

And, don’t avoid doing something because you assume an audience won’t get it. Conversely, be sure to avoid things you think make sense but, looked at from their point of view, are likely to go right over their heads.

To be a great communicator, consciously play to people’s intelligence; to what you perceive as the best in them; using the best in you.

Anything else is deception, artifice or insensitivity.

And whatever medium you choose to communicate with, it’s your obligation to master it, as any great actor or director masters their craft.

Communication is as basic as breathing. Given our nature as social beings and our one-ness with Nature itself, we’re interdependent; in constant communication with each other and with Nature; in a give and take that happens billions of times a moment, every day, everywhere. Exchanging atoms with our environment is communication. Without all this, we stop breathing.

CG: Why do you feel such a burning personal need to examine and help others examine?

YS: Because I believe the world of our senses is just the tip of the iceberg. And those of us who live only on this level are blind, and make mistakes. If you ignore the rest of the iceberg, you’re another Titanic waiting to happen.

The world’s great difficulties now, like history’s Great Wars and Great Depressions and cataclysms, are signaling an enormous shift; one that’s not just economic. We need to understand what it means, what’s underneath it.

CG: I think despite the dislocations we’re up against, this tectonic shift is inspiring many of us, and forcing others, to re-examine their values; revisit (or re-affirm) what really matters in their lives, question long-held assumptions, and reconsider what right(er) thinking and acting is going forward.

YS: The most essential question we should be asking is should we re-examine the entire ethos we’ve been living by. My view is we should.

In every aspect of our lives and parts of society, from our governments to our faiths to our relationships to our place in the economy as consumers and as workers, we should be asking who are we? And asking what we want our future roles and responsibilities in society to be.

We all have the opportunity to initiate an exploration, in some way, in our own circles. I’m doing it through my performing and discussions around those performances. In order to bring people and organizations together in shared exploration – and discovery.

But assuming we have the answers, and following agendas and dogmas won’t get us there. Only a spirit and desire to examine deeply and freely and honestly will.

This is how we’ll evolve. And while evolution can be painful, because some things die, it can be wonderful because new things are born. This is the way, and Socrates’ way, that we’ll ultimately achieve a ‘culture of rightness,’ of higher values; of virtue.

CG: Yannis, thank you for all these thoughts. I hope some of our readers will find the opportunity to see you perform your stirring version of The Apology that continues touring.

Yannis Simonides has been touring the world as Socrates in
solo performances of Plato’s Apology. An Emmy Award-winning documentary producer; actor and director, born in Constantinople and raised in Athens, he’s a former Chairman of New York University’s Tisch Drama Department, and was recently named an Ambassador of Hellenic Culture by the Greek Government.

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