Recently, my friend admitted to me what gave his life meaning.

Sarah Royce

“On stage – it’s the only time I feel really alive,” my friend said as we walked away from the Mendelssohn Theater, where he’d been rehearsing.

I suspected this was something of an overstatement, but then again, what was I going to do? Argue with him? I should have asked him to define his terms.

“I feel so alive!” people yell as they jump out of airplanes. Not having done it myself, I can guess jumpers certainly feel, well, miraculously not dead.

People who have never performed on stage themselves are still sensitive to the power the act of performing holds. It can happen in the most mundane setting, like in high school when that nondescript guy or girl took a drum solo on Arts Talent Day and became, for the duration of the performance, nothing short of fascinating to you.

How can something we react to with such adoration not be one of our most necessary and most human traits? How can it not be difference between getting by and feeling alive?

It doesn’t have to be someone who self-identifies as “a performer” who pulls us deeply into a moment with them. It’s not just the lights and the stage that slays us. The indefatiguable draw is separate, even, from whatever the performer is actually producing. Something else powerfully attracts us to performance.

The emerging discipline of positive psychology has coined a term that seems to describe this state we so love to witness. A concept called “flow” has been posited as a major contributor to an individual’s happiness. Flow is a psychological state that occurs when a person works on a task whose demands are well-matched to their capabilities. Well-matched doesn’t mean “easy.” People hate busywork but love tasks where they feel their personal strengths are precisely what’s needed. Unless the task strikes the right balance, we become bored with something that’s too easy or frustrated with something too hard.

Sometimes, given a challenge we find we have the confidence to address, we will tackle it absolutely. That’s when everything else going on around you seems immaterial, when “time flies.” It may be the harmonica or calculus or soccer that does it for you-what matters is not so much the action as how you engage in it.

In some performances, we are witnesses to flow. Something obviously deeply satisfying to an individual is brought out – with what can seem like superhuman bravery – into the public.

Sinaboro – the University’s Korean drumming troupe, and one that I was once a part of – had their big annual performance on Saturday. The group makes music that requires great attentiveness and commitment to long and complex pieces. In one part of their performance, seven advanced players performed one of the most demanding pieces in the genre. It might have been seven or it might have been 15 minutes long – it was hard to say, because of its trance-like effects on the audience. This was no lullaby, but a profoundly challenging performance. This music requires following a complex pattern of subtly shifting rhythms. Sitting side by side, the three performers on the most virtuosic instrument had all closed their eyes several minutes in. As the piece neared its incredibly fast, pounding peak, one player began to scream, her hands moving too quickly to follow.

This combination of a deep indulgence of impulse and a discipline we rarely sustain in daily life awes us. We suspect that performers are fulfilling fundamental desires that we, too, want to expel into the public space.

The purposefulness of performance feels like a hugely confident act. Save for slip-ups and totally improvisational tangents, performances are intended. What happens in them is done in the light of being observed. As observed as we are in our social lives, it’s unsurprising that performers gather such social cache. All other behavior aside, someone on stage welcomes your gaze – and everyone hungers to look and be looked at. For even the briefest moments, performers seem to get just what we all want. So what gives? Why them and not us?

When we see people perform we see something that’s already in us. We have the same capacity to engage in a task that fascinates, that is, that lends itself to flow.

You could tweak your daily routine to find even the humblest daily dose. And you can stock up on the weekends courtesy of the talented artists, the local finds and global stars that come to this campus every day.

Match your capacity for survival with the demanding task of getting to and from events. You, remarkable organism, know just what’s required of you – a warm scarf and a commitment to your goal. “It lets you know you’re alive!” we scream into the wind.

– Colodner’s hair is always in the wind. E-mail her at abigabor@umich.edu

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