On Performances

Performance. In our age of authenticity, where everything must be felt in order to be real or true, where everything must be exciting in order to be significant, performing rituals or practices smacks of both something not necessarily true and not necessarily significant. The rote church services performed each Sunday underscore this. They seem neither true nor significant.

But, as any psychologist can tell you, feelings are a poor substitute for truth or even reality. At the very least, if feelings were the guide, I think ice cream would be much healthier than it actually is (Another paradox of our society: all our feelings around eating sugary foods seem to be wrong, but all our feelings around, say, hook-up culture and casual sex seem to be right. We listen to dietitians around the former, but if someone tells us the latter is unhealthy, they are a prude. It leaves one adrift as to which appetites and desires to listen to.)

And if something needs to be exciting to be significant, I think my lack of excitement around organic chemistry — and the vaccines created and diseases cured by its study — would at the very least declare that many things that I find unexciting are, in fact, more significant than what does excite me. I’d rank organic chemistry as more significant than a football game, though football has brought me to my feet and consumed my thoughts infinitely more.

The role of a performance, then, at least partially: to remind us what does matter, to invite us into a broader story than our own appetites and excitements, to orient us. I don’t know if those who are enthralled with their appetites need to hear this more or those who go through the rigmarole each Sunday, out of routine and habit. I suspect the latter.

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