‘Oh, yeah, I used to run a circus.’
Generally, introductory smalltalk conversations with me take an abrupt turn at this point.
My life looks much less weird on the outside than it used to, but the past still creeps in and weirds the place up sometimes (this and the bodypainter thing are a big part of that). This bit about my previous life as a circus director is normally followed by jokes about running away from the circus, and I normally gloss over the running away part by jumping into how I got into working in tech (which seems like a weird leap to most people). But the part I’m glossing over (the running away from the circus part) is a several-months long saga that has partially built who I am today. There were practical considerations, to do with relationships within the company, and money, and family obligations, but the real, hulking reason I shut the circus down was a blaring existential crisis.
(I had one of those a year, every year, like clockwork, for a while. Highly recommend it.)
At the time I was running a fairly successful, if esoteric, independent touring circus show. Directing, writing, performing, and running the production company with my business partner. At the same time, I had found Effective Altruism(TM) and finished a degree in economics and was chomping at the bit to Have An Impact On the World. These two endeavours (Having An Impact and running a circus) seemed pretty fucking incompatible. This paradox is what led me to a miserable mid-tour breakdown where I basically just ate, slept, and performed, and was a psychological zombie to everyone (except the Swedish magician I picked up at the artists’ bar and proceeded to have a weeklong fling with).
Hearing ‘Oh, it must be so wonderful to be able to follow your passion!’ from strangers at the artists’ bar felt excruciating.
Creating a live production is very much a physical endeavour. You make things with your hands; people move their bodies; you put physical bodies in a specific physical space in realtime. And in this respect it is both very alive and very limited. You can only fit so many people in a theatre before they can’t see the stage, or their experience of the show is so crappy they may as well have watched it on a smartphone.
And you are only impacting them so much. I interned with a famous circus director in Brisbane once, and on a rare chance I had to have a 1-on-1 conversation with him over lunch, I asked what was, for me, my burning question at the time:
‘Do you ever stop loving circus? And what do you do when that happens?’
(Me hoping he would spout sage platitudes about the inherent meaningfulness of physical art.)
‘Well, you have to be realistic. You are gonna pour your heart and soul into a show for months, and the acrobats will sweat blood over it. And then the audience will come in and be entertained for two hours, and then leave. You just don’t affect their lives that much. You have to really love the craft, otherwise there is no point.’
(At this point I should have done the sensible thing and not subsequently started a career as a circus director, but I apparently took four years to get that memo.)
I remember bodypainting acrobats for four hours every night, having them destroy the bodypaint as part of the show, and then showing up the next evening to paint the same thing again. Like the archetypal Soviet worker stacking and unstacking boxes for no reason other than employment, I felt the nihilism seeping in through my pores. I not only didn’t love the craft, I was in a borderline abusive relationship with the craft and it kept trying to convince me to stay. What even was the point?
Months of depression, several breakthroughs and a move to a new city and a new industry later, I found the point.
Surprising no one, meaningfulness has predictable characteristics. Something will be more meaningful to you, all else being equal, if it has more impact – affects more people, more strongly, for a longer period of time. All of the limits I found with circus (artistic form, time limit, scale of the production versus effort) evaporated when I started writing and making software. Meaning, but scalable! My sense of meaning and purpose did go up, and predictably so.
Working on improving the way humans collaborate has always felt more meaningful than working out how to entertain an audience with essentially a live performance Avatar-knock-off. Every part of my soul feels more aligned in the direction I am heading now.
Except one. And it’s a pretty important one.
My body has been left behind.
All of the activities I consider the most meaningful, impactful, and contributing require sitting or standing looking at a 15 inch glowing screen and typing on a keyboard. I’m not even that good at typing, and my posture is terribly un-ergonomic, but leaving those factors aside, there’s just not much demanded of my body when working on a computer. Other meaningful activities include emotional and spiritual practices (which use my body slightly), sex (which uses my body quite a bit), and things like networking and public speaking (which use it, but demand barely anything at all). Engaging in meaning-making or meaningful activities feels like it pushes my soul and mind to their limits, and leaves my body agitated like a dog kept inside on a rainy day. And as hard as I try, I can’t incorporate it into my conception of meaningful action without playing some funky mental jiujitsu and making myself believe something that feels useless and untrue.
This has manifested itself most strongly when thinking about the idea of ‘exercise’. Exercise is the systematisation of movement into a predictable input for specific abstract end goals. The actual movements aren’t meaningful; their specificity just doesn’t matter that much. Unless you’re particularly oriented around competing in zero-sum competitions of physical aesthetics, you generally just need to find something to do to keep your body healthy.
Yes, I should get some ‘exercise’. But what? I cycle most places, which is some exercise, but in the city it challenges my traffic navigation and self-preservation abilities more than my muscles. It’s the bare minimum. I picked up jiu-jitsu and boxing for a year in the hope that learning to defend myself would feel meaningful, but if I were to honestly assess physical self-defense in a hierarchy of meaningness it would not rate highly at all. I tried rockclimbing (for socialising with all the friends who enjoy it), hiking (for communing with nature), and aerial silks (for doing something I’m good at, and creating beauty). Entering competitions of arbitrary physical prowess is fun, but no one competition is intrinsically more meaningful than any other, really. And none of these would realistically rate in power or importance against activities like coding, writing, organising events or meditating in terms of meaningfulness bang for their buck.
I believe this is a symptom of a wider societal meaning-body dilemma. As our social imaginaries get expanded, and we concern ourselves as individuals with nation states, cultures, markets, and giant forces that we believe we can have some influence over during the course of our lives, on the human level we contract away from the embodied intelligence of engaging directly with our environment, and into a much more limited-bandwidth sphere dominated by the thinking mind. And the body is left out.
I have been in a long-distance relationship with my partner ever since I moved away from my hometown, and after a recent trip home one of the things we noticed was how low resolution modern communication methods are. Even in video calling, the highest resolution mechanism available, we still miss out on the temperature of their bodies, feeling subtle movements like shakes and a sharp intake of breath. You can’t communicate using relative stance, or full body posture, or use your sense of smell. Bodies aren’t well-served in this information economy – they’re used mostly as vehicles for brains.
It seems like with every type of abstraction, there is this trade-off of resolution for abstraction, and in modern abstractions, at least in this moment in history, the body is losing out. If your sense of meaning is connected with society- or humanity- level abstractions, unless you have a very niche profession like a performer or an online physical coach, you cannot challenge your body in the process of meaning-making in the same way you can challenge your mind or your soul. In the same way that womens’ work has been less valued in part because it is less scalable, manual labour of all kinds is devalued because of its limited reach.
And this leads to the absurd commodification of physical challenge, to things like Tough Mudders, as you pay a company a lot of money to make you suffer and create a body-level hero’s journey for you. Apart from perhaps the military or performing arts, no other modern or post-modern institution creates this for you. Why climb a mountain? No one else cares if you do, so you develop absurd tautological reasons like ‘to inspire others’ and ‘to push myself’. It may be practicing the values and character traits that allow you to succeed in ‘real life’, but it isn’t real life, it’s just a simulacrum.
I wish I had a better answer to this dilemma. I’m unwilling to give up the scaleability of the way I make meaning. So prosthetic physical meaningfulness (like the made-up meaning of Tough Mudders) seems like the next best solution right now.
Still, it feels hollow.