What does it mean to act?

Merriam Webster offers 8 definitions for the word “act.” I’m going to focus on the 1st and the 8th.

#1. Act: the doing of a thing; something done voluntarily.

#8. Act: a display of affected behavior.

I’d like to suggest that these two definitions are in tension with one another. Their tension raises an important question: What does it mean to act?

#1 suggests that acting is essentially doing something. Acting is the catch-all category for how human beings “be” in the world. At every moment, with every breath, through every utterance and every gesture we act. Our act-ing conveys important information about who we are and what we stand for. Indeed we are all likely to be judged by others on the basis of our act-ions. Ideally we act in a way that expresses our commitments, beliefs, and values. Perpetually in motion, perpetually act-ing and being act-ed upon is basically the human condition. We can’t help but be authentic, for better or worse, because it’s impossible to mediate every act through a filter– we simply act too much and too often. As the sum total of our deeds, we do well to consider the authentic self that is expressed in each act. To act is to reveal ourselves to anyone that might be paying attention.

#8 suggests that acting is performative. Acting is about putting on a show and being an actor. Sometimes we know we’re doing it, sometimes others know we’re doing it, and sometimes we’re completely unaware (willfully or out of ignorance). Rather than being a vehicle for conveying our authenticity, acting is a way of concealing and hiding our true self.

When we act do we reveal or conceal? When we act do we give voice to an authentic or essential self or do we put on a show? The likely answer is both (and often at the same time).

The Hebrew month of Elul asks us to look at our deeds. When we do we can attempt to categorize them. As we categorize we can assess whether our actions reveal or conceal our truest selves. Through the act of reflection we can begin to understand more deeply how navigate our days. We can look for tensions, ruptures, impediments, themes, metaphors, and motifs. As we inevitably fluctuate between #1 and #8 we can become more mindful of the true impact of our act.


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