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Tiffany Kriner

I Have Nothing for You: Playing the Role of Poor in Spirit

Tiffany Kriner

It felt so silly to play a game--20 scholar-teachers in a room banked with courtyard windows, damp with Spring and thin carpet.  Grades were due and there were still SO many research papers to read. [1]

The CACE Seminar, Theater as a Way of Knowing, was coming at the end of what was the worst year ever for many of us. Long, crushing familial illnesses had plagued the group; the gut-wrenching loss of beloved colleagues and friends wasn’t feeling any less gut-wrenching months later; institutional ignominy and persistent paranoia and anxiety kept getting in the way of everything; we were struggling with relationships, struggling with tons of work, struggling with any number of failed dreams and squashed hopes.  I was pretty much barely there--a zombie version of myself. Tired was what I was, just tired.

But I was determined to be game for the game, even here. I’d minored in theatre in college, I reminded myself. I reminded myself, with no little gratification, that I’d read Stanislavsky--three books worth!--FOR FUN, not for a class.  I’d performed in plays; I’d felt all the feelings. I was going to be able to help make the game go, and I was going to be game.

We started simple: walk around, breathe.  Walk around, breathe.  Back and forth, back and forth across the carpet. We stopped when Mark Lewis told us, and closed our eyes. 

Mark said, here’s what you do.  Keep walking, and keep breathing.  And when you meet with someone, stop, look deep into their eyes, hold out your hands, and say, “I have nothing for you.” Not everyone in this game would have nothing, he said. Some people were going to be touched on the arm, and THEY would have something to give--a touch, a handshake, a hug.  But most people would have to look deep into eyes and say, “I have nothing for you.” 

So, we walked and breathed. I knew he would touch my arm to be a person who had something to give, because I was girding up my loins to be game.  I’d done theatre before, mind.  And he did touch my arm.  But being chosen to have something to give wasn’t at all what I’d thought. What I had lasted approximately 30 seconds in a very long game. The first person I encountered, I touched hands with.  I looked at her, deeply-looking-deeply into her open eyes, and I gave away what I had. And it was gone. The woman I gave it to had what I had had, and I had nothing left.

And then, for most of the rest of the game, I was just encountering people over and over again, and I had nothing for them. 

I looked at the colleague whose faith and learning paper was due, [2] that I’d been trying to help for the last week. I looked straight into his eyes in this moment of great tension in his career.  And I felt this terrible rush of uncomfortable thoughts. Maybe that feedback, practically old testamental in both length and in tendency to deal in very tiny and unusual regulations, all the worrying I’d done for him, the scurrying, wasn’t what I’d thought. My helping, my gift, was probably more of a burden to him than anything; all the comments I’d made--were they any REAL help? Or was I just putting more on him? “I have nothing for you,” I said.

I looked into a less-familiar colleague’s face--his research and stresses and struggles and joys seeming utterly beyond me. He’d joined the college more recently; holding out my hands, I wondered, what had HE thought about this year, this craziness?  They had a new baby, too, and I didn’t even know she existed, hadn’t brought them a meal, hadn’t even known to like a picture of the babe on facebook. “I have nothing for you.”  True, that.

I looked into the eyes of a colleague I adore, whose life is at times under threat because of her research into an oppressive regime, who’s been called upon again and again to support students in the most intense experiences of internship that the college offers. Into her eyes, that see me far more honestly than I like to be seen.  “I have nothing for you,” I said. That one was actually easier, or at least more familiar, since, after all, I was pretty sure that she’d known--as I’d known--for a long time that I didn’t really have anything to offer her.

Over and over again, for long minutes, with our leader on the side, reminding us to breathe, reminding us to walk, reminding us to look into each other’s eyes, earnestly. 

Holding out open, empty hands.

I don’t think I’ve ever, even when I was a dancer in college, or in the theatre, felt that a motion of my body, a look into the eyes with a true sentence, was more true than at that.moment. [3] It has been the worst year of my life, and it shows.  I’m cranky with my family, I’m having difficulty with just about everything and everyone.  I am, sort of, bereft. Or at least, that day, I was playing bereft on the CACE workshop day pretty convincingly. An actor prepares, so forth. [4]

Playing the role of someone who has nothing to offer, of course is somewhat UNtrue of me. I mean, I did help that colleague--sacrificed for him, even if my comments were burdensome.  I was a level of approval, and I approved, even if the process was long.  And I would--maybe even WILL bring that nice new colleague’s family some dinner sometime--at least some cookies. Once I figure out their last name. I probably won’t ever have anything for that one awesome woman to really give to her.  But, I know greatness when I see it--sometimes you gotta acknowledge inferiority before the potentates of scholarship and justice.  I have things to give, though; my whole job and being is to have something to give and to give it: classroom, home, church, etc.

My point is, here, though, that “I have nothing for you” is actually not a bad assessment of the general state of things for all of us, competence aside. Despite all the ways I, in standard operations, think that I have so much--so much money, [5] so much time, [6] so much leisure, [7] so much training and support from family and colleagues, [8] so much general competence [9]--to give, it’s not really that much.

Maybe all those flower petals of competence that I think I’m strewing artfully down the wedding aisle of life aren’t actually as freshly floral or beneficent as I think they are.  Maybe sometimes, the brides and grooms and janitors would actually like something else--a different flower, a not-rotted, not-beetle-eaten one, or maybe just not to have to sweep them all up after I’ve sashayed off to the reception to dance a TRULY laudable Y.M.C.A. and artfully historical Electric Slide.  Maybe sometimes it’s worth wondering what I’ve actually torn apart in order to get something to strew in the first place.

Which sounds really dark, probably, and a little twisted, and maybe even unAmerican and unChristian (weddings!  weddings!) and maybe in-need-of-the-kind-folks-at-the-counseling-center, until you think that Jesus says it a whole lots better, with a killer look at the upshot of the whole thing, in the Sermon on the Mount when he says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.” 

Playing the role, rehearsing again and again one’s own inability to have the thing that someone else really needs, helps me realize that what people have and what people need is comprised entirely in the phrase that comes attendant on my own inability.  Turns out “I have nothing for you” is only the first half of a conditional:  there is a silent then q that obtains if p. The open cupped hand of the spiritually poverty stricken is not JUST the emptiness of what Melville called “an empty cipher.” If I have nothing, and if I say so, it’s only all the more true that the Kingdom of God has everything.  Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Practicing the condition of spiritual poverty--which, it turns out, is more a practice of remembering and rehearsing what is always already the case, that we were dead in transgression, leaves us open to having the “eyes of” our “heart enlightened. . . to know what is the hope to which he has called” us, “what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

If the emptiness has been my portion, is the general way of things, well, then, all the fullness--the fullness of time, the fullness of power, the fullness of riches and hope--those are his.  I have nothing for you--except to say that he has something for us, and his supply will never run out.

[1] It always feels a bit like turning on the ones you love. We had, for the whole term, the magic of late-night discussions over life-changing books...and now, BAM, after all their work, a judgment, a grade.

[2] A DEEPLY important part of the promotion and tenure process, one fraught with a GREAT deal of tension and stress, involving readers, and feedback and three levels of approval and high stakes and oh-my-gosh-DON’T-mess-this-up and so forth.

[3] * (I probably felt real in all these former moments of bodily movement and feeling, of course.  I mean, sincerity is really part of how I operate, as this footnote clearly means to show--earnestly.. But you know what I mean).

[4] Stanislavsky reference.  Told you I read it.

[5] Caveat: “So much money,” is intended as a comparative statement, and in no way is meant to denigrate the very real feelings of my charming husband who is fond of commenting affectionately that, after all,  in financial terms, I’m “the wrong kind of doctor.”

[6] Come to think of it, I’m not sure that under normal circumstances I think that I have that much time. I feel frantic much of the time. I blame Facebook. But I insert it in this list because of my feeling that I OUGHT to feel like, in general, I have so much time.  After all, on occasion, I can go out for Culvers, and not have to make my own food for a night.

[7] But not enough leisure to play board games or keep rodents. I hate that kind of leisure.  More the learn-to-bake-pain-a-l’ancienne type leisure.

[8] Shout out to VTS, writing group invented by my writing hero, Christina Bieber Lake!

[9] Maybe it’s the endless schooling (Life! Long! Learner!), but most situations I enter, I feel pretty sure that I have ideas that might improve the running of the scene (especially in, say, grocery stores, children’s ministry curricula, or parking lot design).  Does this happen to you?

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