Our lives are ruled by ego – but playing is the antidote

The happiest moments of our lives are when we lose ourselves – in art, in exercise, in love. According to Harvard's Diane Paulus, being able to 'play' and engage in something outside of ourselves is a valuable respite from our egos.

Diane Paulus:  I think play is important because you lose your ego. And we live ruled by our egos and our super egos and rules and I should I shouldn't, I should I shouldn't all day long. And when you play that goes away because you have a focus that is not on yourself. And I think in life we crave those moments when we lose our self. For a country that is as obsessed with his selfhood and celebrity and personhood and identity, I think the great irony is that the happiest moments of our lives are when we lose ourselves. And people lose themselves in so many ways. They lose themselves when they take a jog and all of a sudden you're in that zone. You lose yourself in love. You lose yourself when you have sex. You lose yourself when you're just engaged in nature. These are the moments that we crave and I think I have always been interested in that moment and for me it's come when I've been part of a group. And I think it's because I did theater as a kid and I always found that moment when you could be with a group of people and it didn't matter, you didn't matter anymore.

And of course you matter because you're bringing all of your heart and your soul and your mind to it, but you're involved in something larger than yourself. And what's beautiful about the theater is you always get to begin again. And I think as a director I love that that you always get to start again, and you're not starting again like this back to the same place, you're beginning again and again and again. So everything you do you're building on and everything that you experience in life you can pour into your next endeavor. So I feel very lucky that I'm in a profession where whatever I'm thinking, learning, feeling, stretching my brain, experiencing, family life, health, problems, politics, all of that is fodder for how you can be a better artist. So that all comes into play when you're in a room with other people and you can create something out of nothing. It's that making the invisible visible, which is a very precious thing that we do naturally as kids. And we see it all the time. And that's what I said earlier about audience. An audience actually they want to play too. They want to be engaged. Being engaged is in a way playing, is being allowed a space where you can lose yourself and you can participate and it doesn't mean interactive theatre.

I can be sitting in a chair and watching a great scene between directors and I'm participating and I'm losing myself and I'm engaging and I'm playing, I'm helping to toss that ball back and forth, that invisible ball. I mean I feel the more in the theater that an audience feels like if those actors toss the ball to me I could toss it back, or if I toss that ball onstage they'd toss it back that there's that connection. The more engaged we are. So I'm always looking for those moments where I think it's why I like musicals because we don't sing in life, we just don't. So it's a theatrical point of view. And there's a collusion with everyone in the room that this is not real but we're all going to suspend our disbelief and imagine and play.

It takes a brave adult to play. It’s a kind of subordination, a lessening of your status, a silly exhibition of the child you once were. And that, says Diane Paulus, is why it’s so essential.


Paulus is the Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater (ART) at Harvard University, so a good percentage of her day is spent encouraging and directing people to appreciate the art of make-believe. What she realized in doing so, and what she’s experienced in her own life, is that losing yourself in something frees you from your ego.

Whether you go for a jog, or paint something, or have sex, or watch a film so absorbing you forget to even eat one kernel of your popcorn – that's a respite from your cerebral, inward-focused self, and that respite is crucial in an age that’s obsessed with the ‘me’, with celebrity, and that's plagued by status anxiety. Play is the great equalizer, as Paulus says: "For me it's come when I've been part of a group. And I think it's because I did theater as a kid and I always found, that moment when you could be with a group of people, and it didn't matter, you didn't matter anymore. And of course you matter because you're bringing all of your heart and your soul and your mind to it, but you're involved in something larger than yourself."

Paulus presents the elegant version of Tyler Durden’s message: "you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake", a sentiment that urges us to live beyond our own limits, to not be caught up in the trapping of our ego, which insists that we are special, and is angry when we’re not treated as such.

Theatre is the way Paulus loses herself; so go out and see a show. Climb a mountain. Read a book. Have sex. Be an audience to something other than yourself. Don’t be afraid to play.

Find more about Diane Paulus at www.dianepaulus.net

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