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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Audience Hostility

A comment by Maureen in the previous post brought something to mind, and I have to wonder if it is what has made me more sensitive to audience dynamics.

Anyone who has spent any time on stage knows the phenomena; each audience has its own personality, its own dynamic. I was playing Ms. Minchin in "The Little Princess" as an 8th Grader when I first learned about this. Because that was one of the principle roles, I was on stage a lot, and got an inkling, even under my nervousness, of the energy of the audience that fed my own performance.

A couple years later, in Community Theatre, I got an even stronger sense of "audience participation" in their responsiveness or lack thereof. There was no heckling, but rather, a sense of performing to a brick wall or to a living breathing organism. Sometimes the audience was so appreciative it was literally felt and absorbed by us, and returned to them in our renewed enthusiasm. A dismal audience dampened us just as thick fog inhibits echoes.

Speaking to a hostile audience is similar, and in looking back, I have to wonder if my time on stage, as long ago as it was, gave me the ability to tune in to that group dynamic. I know that when I'm at work and speaking to a group, I can tell when they're bored, not paying attention, etc. I can feel it when they've disengaged with the topic.

And boy, if I'm the speaker, I sure can feel it when I'm being heckled! (Yes, literally!) Last fall, I remember preparing for my talk, hoping it was engaging, informative, and useful. Hoping that this group would be as receptive as RCIA had been the year before. But I hadn't accounted for the fact that the parents I was speaking to didn't want to be there, they had questions I didn't know to anticipate, and even as they sullenly arrived, the pre-speaking butterflies multiplied in my stomach.

That first night was worse than speaking to a brick was more akin to whistling in a dark alley as I waited for Freddie to appear with five razors on his left hand. There was a palpable WALL meeting my every word. In desparation, I was looking around the room, making eye contact, and connecting with the people who were nodding, or neutral, or even slightly smiling. There were some who literally had turned their chairs around so that only their backs were to me. I remember one in particular who spent the time chatting with her best friend at her table.

The absolute rudeness was shocking to me. I was amazed at the brazen disrespect. Even though throughout my life I've attended things I didn't particularly care about, and maybe even disagreed, somewhere along the line I learned to, at worst, just be bored. I've never glared at a speaker. I've never turned my back on a speaker. Maybe it came from having to give speeches in Jr. High...we all knew we had to be up there next, and we all knew how hard it was.

The next time I speak, I may address this head on for the benefit of those who might be hostile; I have to wonder, if I reveal this human side of me, maybe they'll be softened enough, remembering their own Jr. High experiences, and be willing to listen even if they disagree. It's a tactic that might be worth trying.

But it's hard to know how to handle hostility, for we don't always know WHY people are hostile. We can be certain there's a reason, and usually that reason comes from a direct personal harm, or at least something taken personally.

We are part of a Church that has, for a couple generations, not been well catechized. A week ago in class, one of our professors remarked that he's always amazed by people who make fun of the memorization methods used with the Baltimore Catechism. They could quote the entire Catechism chapter and verse, question and response. Yet they ripped on the method, stating they never learned anything, they weren't changed by it...maybe so. And he would agree...rote memorization isn't sufficient when our faith should exist to change us interiorly, not just intellectually.

But he had a good response, one I feel as well. To those of you who condemn the Baltimore Catechism and joke that you can quote it to this day: AT LEAST YOU HAVE THAT! You know more than those of us who weren't even taught the most rudimentary articles of faith. AT LEAST YOU HAVE THE ANSWERS, IF YOU WERE TO BOTHER TO TRULY ASK THE QUESTIONS.

It makes me want to cry; we are so lost. And there are so many who are lost who haven't even BEGUN to question their faith and learn about it, content with the seductive relativism of our society that pitts sports against church activities and "fun things" against God. Most of the time, the "faithful" are choosing worldly endeavors because church is a "Sunday thing", if even that.

So it stands to reason that if someone comes along and actually provides real Church teaching, the audience, even a claiming-to-be-Catholic audience tends to get very hostile. They don't know the Catechism. They get their Catholicism from the likes of Nancy Pelosi, and they learn Social Justice from groups that do social work devoid of the necessary Moral teachings that have ALWAYS guided Social Justice.

Of COURSE they're angry! Of COURSE they're insulted! But if they had the time to sit down in the presence of Our Lord, they'd realize that the source of their anger wasn't the speaker, or the teaching itself, but the anger at the spiritual poverty thrust upon them that allowed them to be without God for so long. To not know God. To give lip service but with a forked tongue.

And because they never learned, they are living a privation of good...they are living evil, and it makes them angry, because EVERYONE knows they deserved better formation.

That doesn't really help us, though, does it? Because it means that Priests who speak up, their Faith Formation staff that speak up, the average Lay Catholic who speaks up is going to take a beating from nearly everyone.

I've lost friends, and so have most of my Catholic friends who take our faith seriously. It's not because we're "judgmental" or mean about our beliefs. It is that we've been forced by the friends we thought we had to take a stand...and we can't be a part of something evil. To distance ourselves from, say, being a proxy on a Living Will that asks us to murder our, we can't do that. And so, rather than our friends hearing us out and simply taking our names off of a form, those "friends" remove us from both the form and their lives.

That's another type of audience hostility, albeit it's a smaller audience, but one that is a LOT more painful.

I truly, truly encouage those of you who are crying out for your Priests and Bishops to "have a spine!" to put your own words and lives where they put theirs. Get involved in RCIA, in Faith Formation. Are your children receiving the Sacraments this year? Offer to give a testimony, and don't mince words. Speak the Truth in love, don't be afraid to do EXACTLY what you expect your Priests and Bishops to do...and then stand up and take the backlash.

You'll have a whole different and better appreciation of what you're asking...rightfully asking. And you'll be spending a lot more time praying for those you so love to criticize, because only by experiencing that lash can you ever appreciate the agonizing pain.

If you're not a public speaker, then take your concerns and pray Stations of the Cross for the person you think should be speaking in a certain way, and withhold your unjust criticisms as a penance in honor of that person. You may be amazed at what is revealed to you through such a devotion, and the power it has for the person for whom you're praying.

It's hard to be a faithful, practicing Catholic in our world, and sooner or later we're all going to suffer for it in some way. As I've said before...make it worthwhile.


Adrienne said...

You just sited most the reasons I am no longer DRE at our church.

Someone just related to me one of the parents bemoaning the fact that "I was needed" becuae her son was due for Confirmation. Excuse me!!! This is the same son who has not come to one class in past years but , at the parents urging I'm sure, will sit bored through a few months of classes in order to be Confirmed.

If the Church expects the laity to take over these roles they must give the support to make these programs work - not just leave us out floundering around.

Christina said...

Reading your post should have dampened any urge to speak out about my faith by reminded me of how much I wouldn't survive, yet when I finished I wanted to speak out that much more.

I feel like God is egging me on with conversations, random thoughts that pass through my mind, articles I've read and now this (and your last two) blog posts. It's so frustrating because I'm totally not that kind of person. I'm painfully shy, cave at conflicts and have a huge fear of crowds.

Yet, for the past week or so that urge to go out and proclaim has been so strong I actually considered standing on a corner of the college campus near me and shouting out to the people.

I know the Lord will provide the means and the forum when and IF he wants me to do this, but I am beginning to feel like he's taunting me. For now I'll just offer it up for you and for the priests out there in the line of duty.

Anonymous said...

Christina, I'm with ya...shy, non-confrontational, I'm downright anti-social. After a year of helping out at RCIA I still had to take a deep breath before opening the door to attend the last meeting. I though God was going to cure these things, but He seems to just work around them.

Every time I get the "God egging me on" thoughts, I still FEEL afraid to speak, I even FEEL afraid when speaking, but the words come out with a confidence that says, "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning!" if you know what I mean.

Don't worry about the perfect words or the perfect venue (like I used to, still do). Just say that first...little...something.


Cathy_of_Alex said...

Adoro: Thank you.

Banshee said...

Jeremiah said it, huh? Fire in the heart, burning in the bones....

I'm just smartalecky in the mouth, which isn't the same thing at all. :(