Passivity – Part II

Identifying Passivity

Passivity is a compulsion or learned tendency to live at half-speed regarding certain segments of their life. Almost no-one reading this is “purely” passive but rather exhibiting passive tendencies which ultimately leaves people feeling their life or career glass is half-empty and thus halfheartedly committing to projects, plans and goals. Passive people are half in and half out of relationships. The passive person who suffers the effects of a half-lived life is more attached to not having what they think they want or desire, even though they protest loudly this is not so.

A client of mine, James, is 40 and a very successful real estate agent who earns a high six-figure income. During a session he said, “I work all the time on my marriage. I’m in therapy, I read books and I regularly attend self-help workshops. No one can say I’m passive.” When asked about his marriage he quickly replied, “I want more physical contact, more touching and yes, more sex, but I hardly get any at all.”

James wants his wife, Brenda, to be more affectionate and yet he indulges in a whole host of behaviors that guarantees he won’t get this and actually gets him just the opposite of what he thinks and says he wants.

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I asked him to give me an example of his efforts to get affection from his wife so I could see and show him his passivity and addiction to not having what he says he wants.

James said, “I go into the living room all the time and Brenda is on the couch watching television for hours on end. I say something like, ‘Can’t you turn that thing off for a little while? There’s nothing intelligent or worth watching on TV. I don’t know why you watch these silly shows.’ But she never agrees and I end up storming out of the room frustrated as usual.”

I jokingly said, “How’s that working for you?” Then I offered a suggestion. “Try sitting on the living room couch next to her; gently lifting her legs and placing them on your lap while you massage her feet, instead of shaming, criticizing, demeaning and judging her. Then simply ask her what’s on that you two can watch together.”

He looked at me like I was speaking in a foreign tongue; in a way it was an unfamiliar language because it was the language of compassion and assertiveness.

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James looked a little dumbfounded. “No, I have never even thought of it. It sounds so simple. Why didn’t this ever occur to me before?” he said very seriously.

It was because of his passivity and his fears of rejection, abandonment and intimacy.

By the way, he tried my suggestion the very next week. “We got up off the couch ten minutes after doing what you suggested. She looked at me and said ‘Who are you?’ Before I could answer she laughed and said, ‘Never mind, I like this,’ and we got up and got in bed and made love for the first time in a year.”

This same man devoted an exorbitant amount of time to reading about relationships and marital counseling. He said he worked all the time on his marriage. But in reality, he thought his wife had the problem and not him.

Passivity then is an offense of omission—not doing or saying what you need to, not responding, not accepting challenges and refusing to take risks—rather than commission and that is one reason why it has been overlooked by clinicians and writers.

 

Passivity compels people to wait in a state of suspended animation until something or someone outside themselves “rescues” them from their current circumstances which would then allow them to have the full life that has been eluding them. This knight in shining armor (whether a person, the world, society or a supernatural being) is supposed to bring the passive person something they feel they have lost or had taken from them. That something could be hope, energy, love, trust or faith. It could mean a perfect job, an unconditional lover, winning the lottery or having good parents. It is a psychological, physical, emotional and spiritual condition that plagues even the most educated and self-directed people and therefore the whole person must be addressed.

Passivity pushes people to replay the feelings and memories they’ve stored in their brains and bodies possibly for decades. One of those feelings is the feeling of “Not Having What We Really Want or Need.”

For further information and insights into passivity please see John’s book

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The Half-Lived Life: Overcoming Passivity and Rediscovering Your Authentic Self. Lyon’s Press, 2011.

Passivity – Part I

Solving the Problem of Passivity

Passivity is the compulsion to pursue the opposite of what we say we want. This compulsion left unidentified and dealt with leaves us unfulfilled at best, sabotages success and at worst depressed, hopeless and feeling victimized.

“I don’t care. Whatever you want is fine with me.”

“It is not the job I want but in this economy you really can’t be choosy.”

“He’s not perfect but I’m thirty-five years old. Nobody’s perfect. I’m sure we will grow into love.”

“I’d love to write. I’ve always dreamed someday I’d write but I have kids and a job. Not everybody gets their dreams to come true. Maybe when I retire…”

“I can’t believe what is going on in Washington these days. They are all idiots and con men. But there’s nothing an average Joe like me can do about it.”

“Go ask your father. If he says yes, then it’s okay.”

“That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

“It’s just not in the cards.”

“It’s not God’s will.”

“I guess I’m just unlucky.”

“Some people get all the breaks.”

“It is what it is.”

Does any of the above ring a bell? If they do you may have some areas in life where passivity rules your attitudes, behaviors, personality and decisions. Perhaps you have settled for less than you felt you deserved or you “adapted” to your present situation or relationship rather than changing them. Did you “cop out,” give up, quit and become hopeless and helpless feeling like you were a victim of fate rather than a creator of your own destiny?

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Unfortunately, many people have developed a greater connection to loss and feeling less than; they settle for unfulfilling relationships or careers that never quite achieve their creative potentials. Surviving, rather than thriving, has become the state that many of us are not only used to but are compelled to pursue.

As one highly successful surgeon said to me who was growing increasingly wary of settling said, “I always feel I am half the husband, half the father, half the friend and half the doctor I know I can be even though I’m considered to be very successful in my field.”

I said, “It sounds like you are living a half-lived life.”

“Exactly! But I am fifty years old. I don’t want to say this at sixty or seventy. I want the second half of my life to be a much fuller, satisfying life, but I’m not sure how.”

I’ll tell you what I told him. By coming out of denial, identifying the parts of your life where passivity prevails, working with the origins of your passivity, becoming aware of the signs and behaviors and acquiring new, but tried and tested tools, information and insights that will serve as solutions you can fully engage life, work, relationships, creativity, parenting, grand-parenting and much more.

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Unbecoming: From Despair to Love-Part 5

Read Part 1-4 first

“I keep pursuing Faith, if for no other reason than because it is the place in our life that keeps reminding us of the necessity of Love—Not the romantic love of the poets, but the practical love.”

Krista Tippet—Speaking of Faith

I can’t tell you all that I have hoped for here on this mountain this year. Somewhere along the way, perhaps walking my three animal companions through the woods on a winter afternoon I began filling the hole in my soul with Faith. I’ve learned a few important things perhaps six but still remember this one and that is by letting go of hoping and holding the hands of faith and resting in the palm of process it will cure some of the sores of Despair.

Now here is my personal dilemma—more often than not I reside restlessly between hope and faith. I’m caught between a spiritual rock and a psychological hard place. For me, many days it feels like I’m asking myself to turn loose of a lifeline (oh we think this will be a best-seller, Oh surely you and your former wife will get back together, etc. ect.) tied to the back of the ship I just fell overboard. I want to reach out to hope and let it  drag me back on deck. I hope the lifeline will be a woman who might turn and give my gray beard a second look or that God might throw one glance my way.

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Faith whispers in my all but deaf ear, “you’ll get a best-seller once your ego doesn’t need one for artificial adulation that you still crave. You’re  less vain self won’t care because you have faith and just keep writing like you tell all your students for the pure joy in it. As for hoping for more money which you spend an inordinate amount of time fantasizing about you’ll finally understand the mysterious words of your friend’s poem, “animals give up all their money each year,” and you’ll remember the sparrows and the lilies of the fields. As for a woman coming into your life, perhaps not a lover, but one of the best friends you’ve ever had came your way without one ounce of effort on your part.”

Faith is something I am incapable acquiring like stocks or bonds or books from Amazon. Faith is accessed and generated from the inside out. Faith is an act of Grace where I let the wind blow, the sea be still or turbulent all the while accepting people, things, situations, comings and yes goings and even myself just as I am and allows me to “Know” not believe that I don’t have:

“to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting…” says Mary Oliver

But my fear’s screaming voice is so loud a deaf man could hear it say, “Don’t listen to this shallow, sensitive voice of Faith’s she is a deranged bear wandering in the woods of philosophy and theology and does not serve your best interests like I do. Listen to your “Happiness” psychologist, mindful of your New Age body worker/guru. They will shed light on this whole matter and get you the gifts your body and soul craves.

Fear will talk your ear off and the little faith we have right out of us especially if something doesn’t work out the way it should—a marriage, a promotion, an inheritance. I have listened to this voice so much during my life. I was afraid to leave my family, afraid to leave my hometown, afraid to leave the steady job in a retail clothing store in a windowless mall, afraid I won’t make enough money to pay my bills if I follow my passions, my purpose and yes even my pain. I was afraid then to go to college, afraid I couldn’t get my doctorate, afraid I could and end up a sterile professor longing after the youth of new students each year to round out my dull routine of a life. I was afraid that my wife would leave, afraid I’d never be with another woman again, afraid I couldn’t get it up again if I—afraid I’d get sick and become a burden to someone, afraid I’d actually die before I knew real faith and afraid that I’ll keep forgetting that “perfect love casts out fear.”

Unbecoming: From Despair to Love-Part 4

“…I don’t mind you saying I’ll die soon, even in the sound of the word soon I hear the word, you which begins every sentence of joy…Ah, you’re a thief the judge said, ‘let’s see your hands. I showed him my callous hand in court. My sentence is a thousand years of joy.”

Robert Bly

Hope is the big brother to happiness who can bully the joy right out of us. Hope is the religious hole that was dug for many of us even before birth. “I hope it is a boy.” “I hope it is a girl.” We all hope whatever the gender that the baby is healthy. Then on heartbreak occasion that the baby is not healthy, still born, where does the hope go? I fell into the hope well, as did my former wife with each successive miscarriage—four to be exact. Way before that I hoped my dad would stop drinking a million years ago now. I hoped I’d marry Phyllis Bacon. I hoped and hoped and splashed around until I almost drowned in the world’s darkest wishing well.

Hope is a well-set bear trap that we set for others almost daily. The poet Rumi says, “I shoot an arrow to the left, it lands right. I go after a deer and get chased by a wart hog. I did a pit to trap others. I should be suspicious of what I want.” We provide even the people we love with just enough false hope or encouragement on towards the impossible outcome. Hope like happiness is a turtle trying to catch and pass the hare of our desires. Hope is always in pursuit of something being some other way than the way it is.

The Indian poet Kabir said it this way:

“I talk to my inner lover and say, ‘why such a rush…the truth is you turned away yourself and decided to go into the dark alone and now you are tangled up in others and forgotten what you once knew and that is why everything you do has some weird failure in it.”

homeless-850086_1920So we hope instead of have faith and wonder why love is so elusive in our lives and why “love” fails so often. One out of two marriages will end in divorce. Again the culprit is the searching, the scanning the crowds, looking for the lover out there hoping they are looking for us. Rumi say, “The minute I heard my first love story I went looking for you, not knowing how blind that was. Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere; they’ve been in each other all along.”

Hope is what keeps me from grieving what I once had hoping it will come back. Hope puts what we never had in a small box, wrapped and placed on the mantle above my fireplace. But it is this very grief work that “sorrow sweeps clean the house so joy may move in,” says the Persian poet.

Now put your hope in the wish for your prince to come and if he or she does then you’ll be happy. But when the mailman brings you the certified letter from the Prince saying “he is unavoidably detained and will not make it this lifetime” you’re right back in dark woods of despair. Burn the letter and the envelope it came in and let Faith turn all our heavy lead hearts through the alchemical fire into the pure gold of love.

Unbecoming: From Despair to Love-Part 3

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Emerson

Coming here to this cottage in the woods I assigned myself what I know now to be an impossible task and that was to learn how to be alone again and in so doing engage in the task of being happy. I needed to know that in this rural setting with no lovers, wives, little money, but dump truck loads of peace and quiet I could I acquire this illusory thing called happiness that everyone including me has been so desperately searching for most of our lives.

It turns out that once again the philosopher Kierkegaard would have a useful insight, “Happiness is the greatest hiding place for despair.” “But Herr K” I whined, “the United States’ Constitution says, as does the internet, formerly Madison Avenue everyman has the right to pursue happiness—it is a guaranteed if I get the right job, right education, right spouse, right kids, right house in the right neighborhood I should be happy right?”

So happiness is “If this—Then”. If I don’t get the “right” everything then I’m not going to be happy. This is the cracked foundation on which our “happiness” home is built. It may take years or even decades or a divorce or a death for us to realize this house of straw could be blown over by the big bad wolf of bad luck, bad timing, and bad choices.

Yet it is in this house that we try to “make” our wives, children, husbands or parents happy. What happens when happiness is not achieved or acquired, caught, trapped and claimed as one’s birthright? Most of us feel like we’ve done something wrong, missed the proverbial boat and maybe even fallen out of God’s graces.

Outer circumstances, objectionable people, wars, bankruptcy, poverty, alcoholism seem to be the unhappiness rain that falls on both the just and the unjust. Happiness is more like a mirage in the desert that looks like a place we can eventually get to, claim as our own and drink it’s eternal, flowing waters—our own personal, emotional, spiritual and financial oasis.

“Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out into the woods nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Let me be clear here I am no Thoreau. I have wifi, laptop, desktop, ipad, iphone, and a satellite tv with a million channels. However what I’ve found now that I’ve lived here a year is that when I’m calm enough to remember to take full deep breaths and stand on my studio’s deck and look at the gentle pastures, slopes and hills and I see the horses in the pasture across the road buck at the first sign of cool fall air I experience joy. When I’m quiet and not missing somebody or something and the geese fly right over my house every year about this time headed south I feel a deep and abiding sense of peace and joy. When these honking angels decide to light on the still, small pond beside my studio I think this joy could last ten thousand years in this one eternal moment.

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Joy is something, as alone, lonely, sad, as I am almost every day is experienced a dozen to a hundred times a day. While happiness seems like a permanent commodity I should have bought off the internet and that I’ve paid for emotionally, educationally and financially it always seems to be just beyond the grasp of these too short arms.

Happiness is pursued while joy is received. All these elegant trees on my property and the neighbors’ stand waiting for the joy of their beauty to reach my eyes and then my heart. Some times when the wind is strong enough they wave at me to get my divided attention. The pines especially today are insistent on saying hello. It seems like joy is enhanced in direction proportion to how I reduce my expectancy and search for happiness. Joy can be experienced only in the precious moment. It can give birth to ecstasy, enthusiasm, and even momentary enlightenment. For us to be happy something has to happen to make us so. While joy is quixotic, mercurial, temporary it is available anytime night or day.

Happiness then says something must change and you’ll have me. Joy says you can have me anytime you want; I’m at your beck and call. Anytime you want to see that hawk that just flew over your head, that look in your own eye when you see your children that comes from within, anytime you access that ability you have to stop wanting, wanting things to be different than they are, wanting yourself to be different than you are, wanting happiness, you can experience the joy that is in you, and around you twenty-four seven whether you’re in the woods or in a high rise.

Unbecoming: From Despair to Love-Part 2

“It may be when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have, begun our real work.”

Wendell Berry

Before I can tell you about my despair or really listen to anyone’s I have to be connected to the anxiety that I have numbed, avoided, suppressed and discounted and most of all confused with fear all the while being diagnosed and treated for depression. Doctor Freud tells us that anxiety “is a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a floodlight on our whole mental existence.”

Anxiety, unlike fear, has no external source, cause, or cure; unlike it’s kissing cousin fear. Fear has an object. If I’m afraid of flying, which I used to be, talk therapy and immersion therapy and then getting in a plane can make the fear disappear. If I’m afraid of the dark then I just keep the lights on. If I’m afraid of lions then I don’t go to the jungle or the park but the anxiety that comes from being bone lonely and confronting my mortality is amorphous, ephemeral but just as damn real as any lion. Kierkegaard says, “Learning to know anxiety is an adventure…He therefore who has learned rightly to be in anxiety has learned the most important thing.”

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Whereas fear sharpens the senses, unrecognized anxiety dulls the soul, spirit and creativity not to mention any connection to something divine. Once fear is identified I can fly, fight or freeze. Anxiety is a disorder of desire for something that we can’t put a name to and can’t see, taste, hear or smell but everyone knows it is there if we just get quiet enough. The dictionary says, “Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain or a threat.” The dictionary goes on to say anxiety, “is a feeling of worry, nervousness, a dis-ease about an uncertain outcome.”

The philosopher Karl Jaspers speaks of anxiety this way, “a feeling of restlessness…a feeling that one…has not finished something…or that one has to look for something.” I came to this quiet, windy mountain to look at my anxiety right in the eye because I have been anxious my whole life. The Catholic monk and mystic Thomas Merton wants me to know, “anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity.” When the preacher that baptized me over on Sand Mountain when I was nine years old, laid his bony hand on my should and pronounced that I’d be a preacher I started asking myself, my mom, my god, preachers and priests what to do and not do. However, Merton goes on to say anxiety comes from“being afraid to ask the right questions because they might turn out to have no answer.”

So am I poised to start asking the right questions answer or no answer? Am I ready to follow Paul Tillich’s advice who says one of the cures for my despair and anxiety is to “believe you are accepted” and to accept myself questions, despair, bone loneliness and all in the words of the old spiritual, “Just as I am without one plea…”

The post-modern novelist Walk Percy says, “Anxiety summons us to an authentic experience,” and if I strip down to all that I have learned, felt, seen and heard then one way to move out of despair and anxiety is to stop the frantic and exhausting pursuit of happiness.

Unbecoming: From Despair to Love-Part 1

“Despair takes us in when we have nowhere else to go; when we feel the heart cannot break anymore, when our world or our loved ones disappear, when we feel we cannot be loved or do not deserve to be loved, when our God disappoints, or when our body is carrying profound pain in a way that does not seem to go away.

Despair is a haven with its own temporary form of beauty…Despair is a last protection. To disappear through despair, is to seek a temporary but necessary illusion; a place where we hope nothing can ever find us in the same way again. Despair is a necessary and seasonal state of repair…”

David Whyte from Consolations

This is the house of my adult despair, not my childhood, adolescence or young adult depression. This is where I lived as a late mid-life man for a year in semi-seclusion. This is where I separated from my former wife and life as I had known it. This is where I separated decades of depression from an adult despair. It is in this house where I stared out windows and into some distant pastures, past ponds and pine trees and saw the distinction between happiness and joy.

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It was here in these small, simple rooms I signed a contract with myself to sit with, stand up to and sleep with the gaps in my life and the chasm between fear and anxiety. I have searched for a secret self that has played underneath the debris of years of false selves and explored the hidden paths that produced a way into and out of this forest that finally brought me to a clearing, a way of thinking differently about depression as opposed to despair, anxiety and fear, hope and faith and finally some realizations and direct experiences regarding adult love that I have never been able to show or feel.

Here are, then, the fruits of this process that words will barely do justice to, if they will do it justice at all. Here in this house I will write what I know deep in the marrow of my bones what I believe today after a lifetime of searching, teaching, learning and more searching.

I’ve come here to this sweet, Alabama home. It is here that my heart hurts every day. It is here that my heart heals every day. It is on this mountain of tears and longing that has been a sanctuary made of silence, pine trees, crickets, cicadas, and pastures. It is here I sit and look at and feel the gifts of grief and the balm of solitude. It is here that I have time to think in ways I’ve never had the courage or desire to think and feel feelings that have been foreign, frozen or simply forgotten in all the rush to become and it is here that I have entered a stage of existence I am calling, “Unbecoming.”

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The poet Rumi says:

I said, “What about my eyes?”

God said, “Keep them on the road.”

I said, “What about my passion?”

God said, “Keep it burning.”

I said, “What about my heart?”

God said, “Tell me what you hold inside it.”

I said, “Pain and sorrow.”

He said, “Stay with it. The wound is the place where the light comes in.”

Here is a spark of light about the differences between depression and despair. First depression is a situational, circumstantial, or biochemical imbalance or a combination of all three. Change the situation, the circumstances for the better the depression should diminish, dissipate or disappear. If it is due to biochemical difficulties then change the biochemistry and the depression should lessen. What we know is that only two out of ten people who are diagnosed with depression get little or no relief from pharmacology or psychotherapy or both. What is the other eight or millions really suffering from? Could it be despair that pills, nor PhDs or psychiatrists cannot cure?

The philosopher Sartre says, “Life begins on the other side of despair.” It is in this house of aloneness that I can sit and listen to you, “tell me about your despair, and I’ll tell you about mine,” says the poet Mary Oliver and this is where I have come and “I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned, if you can know despair or see it in others,” to quote David Whyte again.

Despair is rooted in an existential loneliness that almost everyone is afraid to admit for fear they have done something wrong. Despair is a house we eventually have to sit in until we are ready to reassess our deepest self and our interior world. It is in this house where we must unabashedly and without embarrassment or shame strip away all our false selves. Despair is the first stage of freedom and an entrance into a more genuine and real existence. Despair is the bridge that takes us from “here to there.” Despair is that lonesome valley that we all fear but must be walked through. It is the dissonance or the distance between what we thought we would do with this life and what we have actually done, who we thought we’d be and who we became.

Despair is caused by self-betrayal and giving up on our deepest desires; it is the result of the risks not taken, the love not received or spoken. As John Burnside said, “Nothing I know matters more than what never happened.” Despair is the continual frustration and even anger over the feeling that some unspoken or spoken contract or agreement with our self, each other or the divine has been broken or dishonored. It is very different and from depression and must be treated differently.