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 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.