“Shut Up and Dance!”

My intention with this post is to provide both a perspective and to communicate my intuition for why holding this perspective can be hugely beneficial in situations where I experience a discrepancy between is and ought, or rather reality as it happens to be and my expectations of or desired outcome for reality.

The perspective can be summarized as “Life is a Dance,” and contrary to what you may have learned in dance school, it is important to add that not the same person or persons remain in the position to lead at all times. Adding slightly more detail to that image, I am thinking of dancing as an activity that is fun—i.e., it produces feelings of enjoyment and positive excitement—and that, over time, increases the skill of the dancers, such that ever more complex moves are possible.

A second detail is that a truly skillful dancer is able to engage in this activity with all sorts of other people, including those who might be deemed terrible at the activity—even if only temporarily, because in this dance that is life, one cannot always choose who to dance with. Importantly, I do not consider it dancing if one takes the view that one of the people dancing has the role of “making the other people move as one wants, against their will.” It is very different from being a puppeteer steering other dancers. It is an organically emerging pattern of movement between people, in which everybody gets to have a say in what happens.

As a brief excursion on this last point… Try to answer this question: as you move your arm, does your brain control it? The obvious answer seems to be “yes, of course!” Now, what happens if your hand happens to “land” on a very hot surface, say an item that sits on an active stove burner? You might still think, “my brain remains in control.” Well, as a challenge, please imagine your brain instructing your hand to remain on the hot surface for, say, 15 seconds. Could your brain actually “make” that decision? No? Why not? Luckily this is only a hypothetical experiment.

In the dance analogy, what happens if the other person stumbles and falls? Do you simply insist on continuing your movement in the old rhythm? What happens then? It seems quite likely to me that in that situation, insisting on staying with the original—and then rigid—expectation of completing a certain figure will lead to injury.

The point I am trying to make is this: clinging to the thought that your brain is—or for the broader point of this post you are—in charge can lead to a narrowing of options, to an insistence of “getting things done your way.” This view of “being in charge” or “being in control” is, if I think about it, based on a very limited understanding of linear causality. As long as we believe that outcomes are determined by (singular) causes, and that our own, individual will can be or must be the cause for certain outcomes, we may get attached to that idea, and try to reach a desired outcome, even if reality clearly tries to communicate to us that it would be painful, quite as painful as keeping you hand pressed to a hot surface…

What makes me think—and in fact excitedly feel—that looking at life in a different way helps me get through life “better”? To that end, I would like to provide an example showing how, together with holding a fairly typical perspective initially, conflict is experienced. If I can hold this other, “life is a dance,” perspective instead, I can create opportunity for moving with less friction and, ultimately, less damage, hurt, and suffering.

The situation occurred to me fairly recently: during the renovations in the apartment my husband and I purchased, we were informed that a necessary procedural step had failed. A main water line could not be shut off due to a broken valve. This meant that our plan to replace the existing toilet system—going from a flushometer to a tank-based toilet—would be delayed. After the building plumber inspected the main line valve, we were further informed that asbestos needed to be removed around that valve before it could be repaired, and that it was uncertain how long that would take.

My (and our) first way of looking at this situation was as a conflict, in which the building management and maintenance staff did not live up to our expectations—in fact, we experienced their behavior as intentionally obstructionist. And given that we had not done anything “wrong”, and were not responsible for this occurrence, it was the building’s staffs responsibility to fix things—and as quickly as possible to prevent further delays.

Taking that perspective, we initially tried to exert pressure on the super and, when that failed, on the management company. This led, well, no where. I am sure we could have pursued this avenue further—in all kinds of directions, such as threatening a lawsuit, or some other version of “putting pressure” on people to comply with our demand that the main line, somehow, be shut off for us to complete the renovation as planned.

So how does the “life as a dance” perspective change the experience? It starts from the central idea that reality is what it is, and that fighting against—rather than dancing with—what is can create problems. The valve for the main line was (and to this day remains) inoperable, at least in a way in which we could safely operate it directly. And accepting that fact created the need to look for an alternative way to proceed.

The resolution we chose may not be what you would have done in the same situation, but it “works” for us: my husband and I chose to scrap the plan of changing the toilet system, and instead started shopping for a flushometer toilet. Other (dance) moves might be considered. The important point for me was not to “get stuck” in a potentially endless loop of pressing one’s expectations against reality.

As I and you move through life, taking a perspective such as “the best I can do is to try to get what I want in all situations”, or taking a different perspective such as “the best I can do is looking at life as a dance, in which sometimes people stumble and fall, and I better be prepared to catch us”, is a choice. And I hope I was able to communicate that, for me at least, taking the latter perspective opens the door to alternatives. I become “unstuck” from the idea that “sticking to my original plan” is the best option. And then I can continue the dance—as gracefully as I possibly can.

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