“Lions and the Art of Hoop Jumping: Existential Memories of Life in the Tent” By Roble Velasco-Rosenheim

Lions and the Art of Hoop Jumping:

Existential Memories of Life in the Tent[1]


I’ve been trained magnificently. When I was a younger cub than I am today, whips and lashings served as my strongest incentive, but eventually I came to love praise.  It is only through my love of praise and rewards that I’ve survived the constraints of my upbringing; however, I have recently developed a hatred for those passions which seek after nothing but applause.  To such adoration and subsequent aversion I will presently return, but for the moment, let’s consider what all it means to grow up under the warm and musky ceiling of a circus tent.

My training proceeded in increments.  One task fed into the next, and as a result, I always saw their completion as paramount.  The first memories I have of life in the tent are corrective; I’d step too far to the edges of the arena, and sure enough the flick of a whip would force me back towards its center.  A ringmaster here or there would place me back on course, and through the corrective rhythm of his whip, I’d forget why I had strayed in the first place.  Here in the circus, there is always a job to be done, and it would be foolhardy to forget that simple fact.

My career is performative.  There is always some sort of onlooker, and it is for them that I perform.  It is for them that I learned the art of civility –the craft of functioning in this institution – and it is for them that I jump through hoops.  It is of course this last art – that of hoop jumping – for which I am commended, but for such praise I must confess slight disappointment.  It has never been for strength or character for which I’ve been recognized, and slowly I’m coming to see that something of greater value must exist for a life to be worthwhile.  Perhaps there might even exists something beyond the loud roar of applaud for which I work? My pay comes daily in the form of neatly cut, blood soaked slabs, and I devour them with passion.  I must confess, however, that for all the utility that such meat provides me, it has never been for its sake that I have performed.  At first, my job hinged on the evasion of reprimand, but it quickly became a game of winning, of finding the loudest claps and the most ardent “bravos”.

Once my eyes opened and I could walk on my own four feet, I began training.  At the forceful hands of my masters, I was forced into a participatory submission.  The start of my training was a simple series of pass-fail functions.[2]  I learned quickly that an invisible boundary between my master and myself ought never be crossed, and in part, I suspect that his line is drawn from fear.  The moment I approached the ringmaster as an equal, he would beat me back.  Through moving too near another performer I was stung with his whip, and the instant I found myself pawing at the wrong door I tasted the rubber soul of black boot.  These motions were simple enough to avoid, and through limits, I became conscious of my function.

At first I was taught to walk in line.  Small delicacies were laid on a path in front of me, and I soon discovered that following my master’s sequence would produce clear results.  Through following rules and delineated paths, not only was I permitted a midday meal or second breakfast, but the cruel face of my master would soften. At times, submitting to the indicated path would even yield results more gratifying than the meager slices of antelope and dairy cow that marked out my course.  For a good performance, the ringmaster’s mouth might even part wide enough to produce delicate sounds!  These sounds were clearly distinguishable from those that accompanied the crack of a whip or the swing of a boot.  As they found their way past my growing mane and into my ears, they evoked in me something beautiful and foreign – a sentiment that clearly juxtaposed that shame which tended to accompany harder, louder vocalizations.

The gentle murmur of approval is something beyond agreeable.  Escaping the vengeful tones of punishment is in itself a reprieve, but my infant self couldn’t have predicted what majesty is produced by the clapping of human hands and the gasps of enthralled crowds.  Even now that the sounds of praise have magnified themselves to the roar of thousands, I can’t imagine how I could have ever escaped seduction by those first gentle whispers and harmonious claps of my early ringmasters.  The stark contrast that resides in the gulf between pain and pleasure, lashing and applause, was so blinding that to my developing self it quickly eclipsed all other want of growth or exploration.  I have never quite known what it is to be an entity apart from others.  I have never genuinely experienced development for development’s sake, or fun for fun’s sake.  Always when I learned, I learned for the sake of performance; I grew larger, that I might delight the eyes of greater crowds in larger arenas, and I moved to larger arenas so that they might roar loader than the last. What I developed was an addiction.  Each motion I made was for the deliberate end of achieving greater rewards and delighting in louder praise.  I ate so that I might grow larger and stronger, but never had I considered that my strength and majesty were for a simple, lifeless end – a nearsighted goal of receiving more pleasure from the claps and screams of onlookers.

But I continued to eat.  And the hoops through which I pass have been raised higher and higher from the ground below.  At certain times, and for particular crowds, the hoops are set a blaze with dazzling lights that pour off cascades of majestic shadow which dance across the arena below.  Still, when I jump, the motion remains lifeless and static.  Each hoop has its own shape, and the variable ringmasters that cast me through them have each their own quirks; nonetheless, my motion remains the same.  In front of me is set a mark, and without question or caution of what lies on the other side, I jump through it.  The function of identifying and making simple marks has been so entrenched in my daily experience that it seems now to be innate.  I can no longer imagine a time at which such operations did not form the makeup of everyday life, and as a result, I find some peculiar identity with each task’s completion.

Hoop jumping, I must admit, is a dull art.  At first, the action was something exhilarating.  After learning to walk, I was brought to elevated platforms, and before I knew it, I learned to jump for my food.  Those first leaps produced in me a nervous ecstasy – some strange morsel of euphoria that came from a wonderfully proud insecurity.  Due to my potent memory of reprimand, there was never a question of whether to jump; the new question became “will I land”?  I learned quickly that I possess a strong constitution.  I was not, of course, as powerful or courageous as those lions who were brought in from the outside world – some elusive place titled “The Savannah” – and I have always had a mild and competent manner in comparison to them.  Here, there are faculties more important than strength, and perhaps the most practical of them is that which has won me favor.  I recognize limits, can discover boundaries, and have no shame in jumping through prescribed marks.

I owe to my first masters a word of thanks; they taught me from birth not to overstep my bounds, but of most value to me now is how they taught me to identify their marks.  Interchange in the circus institution is guided by particular criteria, and my first teachers were masters of communicating within those confines.  They taught me how to walk and sit on command, but those skills I could have learned from anybody after sufficient punishment.  Where they separated themselves from all others was in the lessons of their language.  They taught me to recognize what any master was asking of me.  I learned from them not just how to avoid their punishment, but how to win the favor of nearly any master, and in turn, any crowd.  They taught me to recognize the universal.  Once their gestures and commands became intelligible, the game was simple.  The challenges that face me are not physical; they come not in reaching or passing through the hoops, but in finding them.  Once that hoop has been located, the task need only be completed, and in accordance with my very first master words, completed well.[3]

How fascinating it is to watch the strongest of Savannah lions miss their marks.  They tend to jump clean over, or directly into the rims, but rarely do they pass through them.  Their strength (as I have mentioned) exceeds mine tremendously, but what they lack is an understanding of how to use it.  They are of course, more spry and courageous than I am, but in this particular institution, courage and genuine strength are of little value.  What one needs here is to learn the art of meeting marks.  From this point a lion can proceed to build himself as a lion, but preceding any inward development, one must first learn to do what is asked of him.  In this setting, there is always a job to be done, and one must never forget that.

Those who I respect most are the strong bodied who know how and when to act.  They are of a ferocious character and don’t mind stern beatings or angry cries, but they know perfectly well how to avoid them.  They have in them an awesome power, but possess a rare ability to pacify themselves when reason commands it. Next to them I discovered myself both dependent and cowardly.  It is for themselves that they perform, and it is towards such majesty which I now strive.  To the greatest of publicly independent lions I bow my head in pure, simple humility.  Their grace knows no bounds, and for their style they receive the most ardent applause.  It is (in my own opinion) the most noteworthy mark of these beautiful performers that they have no need of, or addiction to praise.  They perform for their own sake, and the crowds that adore them so passionately cast their hands on deaf ears.  By peculiar flurries of fate they have found themselves performing in this bizarre institution, but their lionly essence would be the same here as anywhere.  Their performance is only a performance because they have been placed in front of an audience, but their movements would be as spritely and regal in any context.

Through admiring these carnivorous divinities, I have tasked myself with diluting my addiction to praise.  The greatest admiration I have is for those who can perform for themselves.  The most magnificent performers have no interest in applause, and seem even to shy away from it.  Why then continue?  Because it is here that they find themselves, and performance is a means of survival.  The proudest lions refuse to act, and through their stubbornness, they are put down or released into the wild.  It is then in our best interest to perform, but this need not be in the service of applause.  I have come to love this institution; it has nurtured and taught me beyond measure, and I have no desire to take my leave of it.  Within its confines, however, I hope to develop those qualities that I respect most in the majestic performers.

I need to wean myself away from an unhealthy addiction in order to enjoy this life to its fullest.  Applause is a beautiful vice, but it has a potent ability to distract from the functions of my own form.  Meeting those marks set in front of will assuredly continue to win the affection of city dwellers and suburbanites, but I must remember that it is not for them that I perform.  I commit myself to finding beauty in those tendons and ligaments that permit me to jump through hoops, as opposed to seeking affirmation from those who know my body only on its surface.  If I hope to perfect my form, it must be an inward movement.  Those who rest outside of me can serve only as partial markers of an inward success.  If I am to seek after my own good, it seems imperative that I seek it. While praise is a delicacy that I continue to enjoy, I am learning to detach it from the success it purports to measure.  Meeting marks and receiving praise for their completion can act as a sort of affirmation for an inward success, but I must remember that praise and excellence of function are not synonymous.

I’m told that on the savannah, excellence can only come accompanied by the ability to capture game and feed one’s kin, but here the qualifications are different.  In my own context, we also function under specific conditions, but they have their own mandates and parameters.  The wild lion seems to many to possess an absolute freedom, but he too must operate under particular conditions – limits set by the demands of hunger and exhaustion.  For my own part, I enjoy the institution to which I belong.  I continue to learn about the constraints under which I function, and more importantly how to flourish within the context they provide.  Limits are something greater than simple restrictions; they are guidelines that can help us excel within given boundaries; they permit us to recognize function and how best to perform them.  For the ringleader and his audience, I gladly jump through hoops, but it is for myself that I maintain a body capable of doing so.  I am learning to find a genuine happiness in the performance of my function, and at the same time I’m closing my ears to the roar of applause.  Here, there is always a job to be done, and I have no intention of straying from my tasks.  I work under the red and white canvas of this institution, and while I remain its employee, I will carry out my function to the best of my ability.  Within this context however, I work for myself.  My life and actions are an inward movement, and the context in which I perform is but an elegant frame on its edges.[4]

[1] Existential philosophers often make use of literary tactics that fall slightly outside of the ordinary methodologies used in philosophical discourse.  Instead of making linear arguments within the context of formal essays, they frequently express themselves by writing plays, stories, contemporary myths, and in some cases even films.  I have found a great deal of value and efficacy in their diverse approaches, and as a result, have here borrowed from their indirect literary methodology.  Needless to say, this piece cannot be read as a formal essay; however I hope that it might be enjoyed as a story.  What you have here is an account of performance within the bizarre limits of a circus tent.

[2] Here, when I use the term “function”, one might be reminded of the logical framework that underlies the performance of a computer or circuit board.  Tasks were simply reduced to ((either p or q), but (not both p and q)), or to ((if p, then q) but not (if q, then p)), [or, if you prefer: ((p v q) . ~ (p . q)) v ((p ⊃ q) . ~ (q ⊃ p))] The correct or incorrect application of actions to such functions yielded either lashing or praise, and never both at once.

[3] Even now, when I think back on his first lessons, I hear his rich Spanish voice booming at me: “Si algo se hace, se hace bien!” [If you do something, you do it well!]

[4] A corrective whip must be wielded by skilled and delicate hands, and a brief word of praise is here due to my wonderful editors.  I must extend a tremendous “thank you!” to Dr. James R. Goetsch Jr., Kristin VanDiest, Scott Mendelson, and Elizabeth MacDonald.  Their input has helped with both technical and grammatical mistakes, as well as to humble an often-arrogant voice.  Without their valuable corrections this piece would not exist.  To all of you, I shout a loud “SVAHA”!


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