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

the half lived life book by john lee
The Half-Lived Life: Overcoming Passivity and Rediscovering Your Authentic Self. Lyon’s Press, 2011.

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.