I, like many people, have a deep seeded fear of the unknown. And being the sometimes overly self-reflective soul that I am, I felt the need to explore this scariness a bit further. Many theories exist about this natural fear of the unknown alive and well in many of us (wish I knew the proper cool Latin –phobia word to enter here). I find the psychologist theories the most useful here as they attribute the common discomfort to how our happiness as babies was determined by the predictability of our needs being met. As adults we equate the same predictability and security with happiness. Although I certainly (that is a certainty) get bored with predictability. Turns out what’s missing for me, and in a lot of cases, is actually the ability to cope with the inherent uncertainty of life – not make things more certain. Both improv comedy and quantum physics share the necessity of uncertainty, as well as many other gems of wisdom, and offer deep insights into the implications of learning to love the unpredictable nature of life.

I took my first improv class (insert Endgames shout out here), about six months ago, it was on my Life List (#40 to be exact) and per usual wanted to do something that made me slightly uncomfortable. My desire also stemed from the fact I have so few outlets to express myself in a playful way. Improv seemed the perfect antidote to the sometimes seriousness of school and life in general. It is six months since my first class and I’m finally appreciating all the important lessons it had to teach me.
Another great teacher on uncertainty is to be found in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (a fitting title) of quantum physics. It counteracts the usual Newtonian way of thinking where physical existence is predictable and certain and shows the impossibility of measuring the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously to get accurate or certain results. Simply stated, the more we know about position the less we can know about the momentum. The act of measuring one variable changes the other. This uncertainty of measurements feeds into the future development of the system and influences all other possible outcomes. This paradoxical way of assessment encourages the idea that anything could be possible in a system with unpredictable results.

Quantum theories point to the idea that knowledge is limited and therefore cannot provide security. Even scientists recognize the beauty of creativity and its position in the unknown. Fritjof Capra, physicist and systems theorist, said, “Uncertainty is at the heart of creativity.” Improv comedy is an art form and creative process defined by spontaneity and the unknown. The principles of what makes good improv describe Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Because of its naturally self-organizing system, improv allows absolute freedom and possibility. An inclination towards order, coherence, and meaning could be likened to Newtonian physics, or a scripted play. However, anything is possible in improv and that fact makes it fascinating to watch and even more frightening to participate in.

Improv, like quantum mechanics, also relies heavily upon relationships to one another and the “entanglement” of ourselves with the other actors. Major parts of quantum physics show us how things are related (see EPR Paradox and Bell’s Theorum for more on this…Wikipedia can say it better than I can in a blog post). These relations are governed by probabilities, not by predictabilities, just like improv. What makes a scene great is that the characters have a relationship we can relate to and connect with. We don’t want to do predictive improv, even though some of us may want predictive science. We want to do clever, connected improv showing us the hilarity to be found in our own lives. As comedian/improviser Del Close says, “The truth is funny.”

The challenge for those of us living in uncertainty, which is all of us, is becoming comfortable in the unmanifest, or the superposition (the place where an atom is both in and out of existence) without needing to collapse the wave function. In improv terms, to live in the space of a scene where we have no idea what will happen and stay there confidently. The longer we can hold, or are comfortable in this state then the scene/life can truly unfold before us without our attachments tainting it. We as improvisers seek to balance spontaneity with scientific method, neither one giving us all the answers or showing us how to cope with the uncertainty they both thrive upon. This time in the uncertainty requires certain characteristics of mastery, one of them being trust.

Above all improv taught me the necessity of trusting in the face of uncertainty, because whatever needed to happen, would happen. I remember being at open “workouts” with a group of mostly strangers, and men to make matters worse (I much prefer the company of woman, for reasons I won’t name here), and feeling incredibly insecure. It was awful, I knew I needed to be there, but I wasn’t sure how to deal with the pit in my stomach that showed up each and every time I had to enter a scene. I didn’t trust myself enough to just jump in. At the time I didn’t realize creativity requires self-trust, and also inspires it.

We have to participate in our lives believing and trusting there is some sort of higher purpose to the uncertainty we exist in. In improv we have no choice but to love our mistakes and trust ourselves, the other players, and the overall process. Our ability to cope with not knowing what will happen next leaves us no other option. Trust, we must. For to trust ourselves and the universe in its process requires us to be the natural improvisers, scientists, and philosophers we are.


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