Like many Americans, I exercise -- reluctantly.
At my gym, exalted banks of television sets loom high in the sky above the ellipticals and treadmills, the story of our collective American state of mind, beaming down at me on all channels.
The televisions at my gym are programmed by the members watching them and you'll get yelled at if you change the channel.
Some people can be testy about what they want to see.
They don't want to change the channel.
A popular show featuring women talking around a table is on.
One of them is married to the president of the same network that airs the show.
The wife of the president of the network talks about going to a movie, eating food at the movie and putting her trash in a bag underneath her seat.
She says that at the end of the movie she crouches down in an effort to find her bag of trash.
The president of the network asks her, as she's searching underneath her seat, "What are you doing?" "Picking up my trash." "What are you doing that for?" "Cuz it's my trash."
The president of the network replies: "Don't do that. They have people for that."
On the television set next to the one with the women talking at the table about whether or not to pick up your own trash, is a channel transmitting non stop coverage of the American debt situation.
Next door to that transmission, the television is showing a couple buying their first home.
"It's too small," the heavyset blonde barks at the realtor who wants the sale. The realtor tentatively reminds her that this home is at the topmost range of her budget.
She barks back, "I don't care. I don't compromise." The husband stands silently and shrugs his shoulders.
On the other channel, the talk show host complies with the president of the network and leaves her trash behind while the non-stop debt coverage keeps going- non-stop.
I share these stories with my students. They're actors in Hollywood. They're on television. They make movies.
I ask what these stories have in common.
We discuss the concept of responsibility as a living human experience of values, an experience of human beliefs in action with consequences.
We discuss the concept of responsibility as a word that contains a vast world of interpretive frameworks-a world of circumstances and value structures -- that are varied within American culture and even more so on the world stage.
We discuss the consequences of making assumptions about perception and the impact of multi-cultural perception on conflict resolution.
We discuss the power of storytelling to explore alternative frameworks of interpretation, to illuminate perception, to create community and to facilitate catharsis.
We go to work. Our work is play. I teach acting as the art of the empathetic imagination. I call my work with actors THE IMAGINED LIFE TM.
Actors have been encouraged to be childish in their narcissism for many years, but the good ones have remained childlike in their willingness to play.
The word play comes from ludere, which means light.
Our IMAGINED LIFE TM begins with a willingness to exchange interpretive frameworks and to accept alternative perceptions as a possibility for ourselves.
It has been my experience that the action of doing that is a light that illuminates all of our lives. Our embrace of others is only as wide as our capacity to empathize.
Empathy is the heart in the art of acting. Empathy is an imagined act. Our IMAGINED LIFE TM is an experience of possibility.
Our IMAGINED LIFE TM is an experience of accessing possibilities of the self through the power and the daily practice of our empathetic imagination.
Changing perception means changing the channel on our inner tell-a-vision.
Experiencing alternative perceptions starts with exchanging one network of interpretive frameworks for another network.
If you're on the hungry channel all you'll seek is food or whatever you may be hungry for -- love, drugs, alcohol, power, freedom, security.
If you're on the altruistic channel -- you'll help others to have what they really need. In other words -- if a person's need is food and you give a malaria net -- don't be surprised when they start fishing with it.
If you're on the nauseous channel -- it won't matter how big a feast you have in front of you. In order to alter a perception -- you can't be like the members at my gym.
You have to be willing to change the channel. Empathy is first and foremost an act of acceptance.
Empathy starts with a willingness to put your self in another person's shoes.
Empathy as a daily creative practice means to walk around in those shoes.
Without imagination there is no possibility for experiencing a perception under the impact and influence of alternative interpretive frameworks.
Without using the gift of our imagination there is no empathy.
The art of acting, when it is practiced correctly, is truly a humanitarian art form.
Actors accept all aspects of the human character as a possible self.
There is no character that exists outside of each one of us. We can all be the victim as well as the victimizer. Story is about character.
Character is who we reveal ourselves to be when the levees break, when the markets crash, and when there's trash on the floor.
Story is about human beings taking action with intention in the face of obstacles.
It has been said that adversity introduces us to ourselves.
And so, while it is an actor's job and joy to empathize with the sets of circumstances and the values of those purchasers of over budget houses, as well as with the lenders who encourage it, with politicians who vote against raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and with presidents of networks and talk show hosts who leave trash behind for others to clean up -- it is my hope that the non-actors of the world will accept an empathy experiment.
Like an actor, for a minimum of one hour a day, let's practice exchanging our personal interpretive frameworks for an alternative one.
Let's practice living from the perspective of a person who envisions the world as a place of interdependence.
Let's practice living from the belief that what one person does affects the whole.
Let's practice living an IMAGINED LIFE TM that tells a vision of empathy through our daily life actions.
If the primary value system in America is still the Judeo-Christian notion of love, then it is my hope that the empathetic embrace of American life can extend beyond our perceived borders.
To love our neighbor as ourselves because -- as all good actors know -- when we empathize -- our neighbors ARE ourselves.
As Atticus Finch said to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird -- "You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them."
It has been my experience in working with these wonderful empathic people called actors -- that when you walk a mile in another man's shoes, you will come to find out that those shoes exist in your own closet.
I'm willing to put on my running shoes and exchange my reluctant perception of exercise for an alternative set of values knowing that the state of my individual health affects the whole.
And if we can all practice the art of empathy and become students of alternative perceptions then Atticus might be right when he told Scout, "You'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks."