Reflections on Scenes from Wit


A little over a week ago, I attended the third annual Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine (CCLCM) Research Day. This afternoon serves to highlight and celebrate the research of our recently-matched and ready-to-graduate fifth-year students and also brings together nearly all 160 CCLCM students and numerous faculty for a lecture in memory of Iva Dostanic MD, PhD, CCLCM Class of 2011. This year’s lecture strayed from a traditional research presentation in order to feature scenes from the 1999 Pulitzer-prize winning drama Wit, interspersed with narrations by its author Margaret Edson. For a little over an hour I watched the unraveling of the play’s lead character Vivian Bearing, a renowned English professor being treated in a research hospital for stage four ovarian cancer. As we witnessed the juxtaposition of characters clinging to their professional identities of professors, physicians, and scientists with the slowly increasing exposure of Professor Bearing’s vulnerability, Margaret explained her motivations for crafting the play in such a manner. She explained how she envisions every person to have three different “selves.” First, we have a busy self – this is the self that most people identify with for the majority of their lives. This busy self is the self that is doing, accomplishing, earning, pleasing – creating and maintaining an identity recognized by the outside world. Margaret refers to our physical self as our slimy self – most of the time this self operates on its own, and in the case of a malfunction doctors and scientists are tasked with its repair. Margaret finally describes the true self, the self that remains when one day both the busy self and the slimy self have gone. She describes that for most individuals, the busy self predominates; however, in brief moments we are afforded a glimpse of our true selves.  In Wit, Margaret strips Professor Bearing of both her busy self and slimy self – confined to a hospital bed with scientists bustling about her as if her body is nothing more than a research specimen, Professor Bearing fights to cling to her busy self identity until at last, in the final scenes before her death, she relents and allows the exposure of her true self.  In her narration, Margaret describes the necessity  of this terrible struggle in order for Professor Bearing to experience her true self, if even for only a few moments before her death. Painful as it was to watch Professor Bearing’s suffering in these final moments, Margaret argues that it would have been far more tragic had she died according to her own heroic dream- reaching for a book on the top shelf at the library – having never been challenged to discover and embrace her true self.

Professor Bearing clings to her "busy self" identity while surrounded by physicians and scientists assessing her "slimy self."
Professor Bearing clings to her “busy self” identity while surrounded by physicians and scientists assessing her “slimy self.”

As I reflect on this performance and some recent discussions I’ve had, I realize how closely this dramatization resembles the experience of most individuals in our culture. We proceed through life so preoccupied with our busy selves that it often requires a wake up call in the form of a threat to our busy selves  (losing a job or particular role we play) or our slimy selves (an illness) for us to stop and spend a few moments connecting with our true selves. Even in this situation, we often we grasp for our busy or slimy self identities to prevent the exposure of our true selves. I can’t imagine how frightening such a dramatically life-changing event must be on its own, but facing this event while simultaneously meeting one’s true self for the first time would likely prove much more disorienting and overwhelming, in my mind.

Margaret Edson narrates scenes from Wit, her Pulitzer-prize winning play at the 2013 CCLCM Research Day.

So, how can we try to touch base with our true selves prior to such an event so that we may be better prepared to handle the threats to our busy or slimy selves that will undoubtedly ensue? One approach lies in distracting our other selves such that we permit our true selves to shine through, and I’d like to propose the argument that walking into a CrossFit affiliate allows us to do just that. One of the many reasons I love walking into a CrossFit affiliate is that entering inside those four walls forces us to abandon our busy selves. Inside a CrossFit affiliate, no one knows or cares whether you are a world-renowned physician, researcher, English professor, mother, musician etc – all that matters is that you are there, ready to work hard to move better, improve your fitness, and support those around you to do the same.  While normally we cling to our busy identities, a CrossFit affiliate provides a safe space for us all to let go and take on the identity of an athlete.  While it may be true that CrossFit forces us to focus on our slimy (or physical) selves through exercise, I’d like to propose that by taking our bodies to the limits of their capabilities as we do in CrossFit, we lose the ability to maintain complete control over our slimy selves, and this effort transcends the physical to the mental and emotional.  Any CrossFitter can identify with a moment when your body has failed, forcing you to stand gasping for breath over your barbell near the end of a workout. You have 5 reps left, and you’re starting to question whether you will finish. You can hear the words of encouragement from your trainer and peers somewhere off in the distance, and in that moment you make the decision to step back to your barbell and keep forging ahead. It is in these moments, which happen every single day in CrossFit affiliates around the world, that individuals are stripped of their so-called busy and slimy selves and stand face-to-face with their true selves.

Professor Bearing starts to expose her “true self” while speaking with her nurse.

It is in a brief moment in Wit when Professor Bearing connects with her research resident that ultimately  allows her to begin to expose her true self.  In her narration, Margaret emphasizes the importance of human connection in discovering our true selves in the midst of the chaos of our lives, a theme we are again no stranger to in the CrossFit community. Not only does CrossFit strip us of our busy and slimy selves, but it allows us to do so in the presence of others, facilitating the connection with our fellow human beings and thus allowing us to make sense of our crazy, chaotic lives.

Dr. Martin Kohn, Director of the CCLCM Program in Medical Humanities, Scenes from Wit Director Katherine Burke, Actor Prof. Catherine Albers, and Playwright Margaret Edson reflect on the Scenes from Wit performance.

By providing this opportunity, CrossFit regularly forces us to ask our true selves questions such as “Who am I?”, “What am I made of?”, and “How am I going to approach the challenges that life brings?” As we gain this insight, we are better equipped to embrace our true selves and more fully understand the meaning and purpose of our lives. When faced with a threat to our busy or slimy selves in the future, such an understanding of our true selves will better prepare us to face these challenges with resilience and grace.

Thank you to Laureen Nemeth for the photos used in this post.