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No. 3249:
Behaving As If

by Megan Cole

Today, a skill for challenging times. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Stress, a common companion in the best of times, can become overwhelming in what may seem like the worst of times. And when circumstance threatens to overwhelm our best intentions, we need skills, not just our usual graceful intuition, to see us through. I have a modest suggestion.

I am an actor by trade, and the skill I call on most often during periods of uncertainty is "Behave As If". It is perfectly simple and perfectly profound. It means behaving as if we were the person we want to be. If we want to be, for example, a kind person, we behave as if we were a kind person. Simple, right?

Megan Cole - behaving as if she were Vivian Bearing, grappling with ovarian cancer in Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play WIT.

Consider this: all of us, at every moment, are selecting aspects of ourselves most appropriate to that moment and then behaving accordingly. Right now, for example, I am behaving as if I were someone who knows what she's talking about, and who really enjoys talking about it, with you. I am not behaving as I might, say, with my little cat Rico. I am making another choice, on purpose. And it's the choosing that makes the difference.

I of course use this all the time in my work. If the line I'm to speak is, for example, "I don't mean to complain, but this isn't right," I need to choose what kind of person is speaking. She may be bitter (do line bitterly), she may be self-pitying (do this), she may be in self-denial (again).

But this idea of intentional behavior isn't just about line readings; it can apply to whole lifetimes. We all want to express our highest values, so we ask ourselves, "What are those values?" We reflect on this over time, making choices all along the way, and then in the sudden, critical moments, we're prepared to make the truly difficult choices to behave as if we were who we imagine ourselves to be.

I Become A Cat
I Become A Cat.

I'm not making this up. Aristotle wrote in the 5th-century BC: "We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage." This is so heartening: we become the thing by doing the thing. It's a skill that, like everything, improves with practice.

Let's maybe practice it today. If stress or uncertainty arises (it happens), let's stop and say, "I intend to behave, for the next few minutes, like the person I want, and know myself, to be." It might be just what we need to come home to ourselves.

I'm Megan Cole, for the University of Houston, and I'm interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Aristotle, The Complete Works: The Revised Oxford Translation, Vol. 1

Episode recording by (and treasured husband of Megan) Peter Newman, KING-FM, Seattle.


This episode was first aired on February 2, 2021