Passivity: Part 1

April 6, 2009

In his novel A Separate Peace, John Knowles wrote these words from the point-of-view of his narrator, Gene: “It was only long after that I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak.”

I know too well that kind of sarcasm that cloaks disappointment, anger, resentment, or bitterness in the form of passive-agressive insincerity.

For example, if the rest of us were waiting for our friend Cody to show up so that we could leave for the lake, I might say when he finally pulled into the parking lot, “Cody, thanks so much for being on time!”

Rather than press into the real issue—my friend’s willingness to disrespect our time by keeping us waiting—I expressed my frustration through indirect, facetious remarks. I spoke in poison-tipped code.

I fell into the trap of passivity.

Passivity is a hound biting at the heels of most men I know. We run from conflict. Passivity requires honesty, and honesty requires vulnerability, actually telling another person how her behavior makes you feel.

What if I had taken Cody aside and explained how his habit of showing up late and keeping everyone waiting made us feel like we were unimportant? We saw no respect or honor in his behavior. His tendency to justify this behavior added insult to injury. If we were all able to follow through on our agreement to meet at a certain time and place, why was he exempt? After several dozen apologies, we found it difficult to believe that he cared. His saying “Sorry I’m late” began to look like a preemptive effort to deflect our irritation rather than accepting responsibility for his actions and agreeing to change.

How often do we love our friends enough to reject passivity, sit down with them, and start difficult conversations? 

“I think you have a drinking problem.”

“I’m worried about how much weight you’ve lost in the past few months.”

“I’m uncomfortable with your girlfriend spending the night.”

Passivity sucks out a man’s strength and vitality. Boldness swells his heart.

[More on this subject to come…]

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Introduction

While I was teaching at David Lipscomb High School, a close friend of mine from college was working as a barista in a Nashville coffeeshop.  Justin is good-looking, intelligent, and creative.  He made mostly As majoring in Communications, minoring in German, and earning quite a few credits in Missions classes.  Why would he be working a job with no potential for advancement?  Why would he be working in, ahem, the food industry? 

Well, because his gentleness, kindness, and true concern for others gave him special clothing of light in a dark corner of a dark industry. 

Yet, when people asked him what he was doing, what he’d been up to, his mention of Fido, the coffeeshop, was a conversation stopper.  Because he wasn’t embarking upon an illustrious career or going to graduate school, his education was somehow a waste.  He had missed the boat to a meaningful, respectable life.  Surely, he was lazy or immature; otherwise, why would he stay on at a dead-end job?  I don’t remember his feelings much pressure from his parents to “get a life”; they are extraordinarily supportive and open-minded, which is probably one of the reasons why Justin was contented to work somewhere he was needed, regardless of his job’s lack of prestige. 

I remember one conversation we had in which Justin expressed his frustration with people who, with a frown or dismissive, mouth-only smile, made him feel like a failure for earning a small income at a place he loved with co-workers who needed his love.  A light bulb went off in my brain:  We really don’t have to live up to other people’s expectations.  I wrote a short reflective piece called “Letting Go of the Desire to be Impressive.” I hope you enjoy it. 

Letting Go of the Desire to Be Impressive

Yesterday afternoon, which was a Sunday, I was buzzing on a double latte from the Frothy Monkey when I decided to shave my head.  We are in the middle of Lent right now.  I like the idea of a season that should be characterized by major changes and major sacrifices in our lives.  Do the people who have everything and do everything they want enjoy greater happiness than other people whose lives are more restricted by jobs and families and even bad health?  My good friend Aron Wright sings a song with a chorus that goes, “I guess some people get to do what they want…I guess some people get to do what they want…while we pay…while we pay.”  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I lead a pretty cushy life.  If I can afford to pay $1.65 for a small cup of coffee on Monday morning during my planning period, then I can’t have too much to complain about.

I was thinking about how I need a haircut.  I was also thinking about how I get tired of trying to look good or presentable or attractive, really just pouring energy into maintaining appearance.  Physical appearance.  Girls have it worse, I know, but that doesn’t mean guys don’t get sick of the expectations placed on them to be charming or smooth or powerful, any variety of stereotypical masculine characteristics we choose to build our facades.  I can’t speak for all the men I know, but I can speak for myself.  I say “facades” because most of the time my braggadocio, sarcasm, and striving to be funny are a cover-up. 

Most of the time, I feel like a wreck. I’m not saying I’m about to hyperventilate and have a nervous break-down. Guys get tired of jockeying for attention from girls.  Of dreading work and longing for vacations only to have them tainted by the dread of going home to the daily grind.  Of cultivating some degree of physical strength while knowing that our bodies will eventually weaken and finally fail.

I think we all get tired of looking like we have it all together.  Adjust your tie, fix your cuffs, put on your most convincing, fakest smile, and shake everybody’s hand.  “Oh yes, Bill, the golf game’s great.  Family’s great.  Business is great.”  But, Bill, let’s not talk about my daughter’s anorexia.  Or my wife’s depression.  My own struggle with pornography.  Let’s not talk about how tired you are because the burden of caring for your parents fell to you.  Let’s not talk about the rumors: you’re having an affair and your son has a drinking problem.”

I get so tired of having to be “impressive.”  Maybe I put this pressure on myself:  to make something of myself, to choose a career, to fulfill my potential.  Yes, God gave me certain talents and abilities.  People tell me they enjoy reading what I have written.  In the past, I have taken the compliment as a firebrand. 

It’s as if I am riding a horse at a comfortable trot, and somebody comes along and says I have a natural ability.  I am a good rider.  What do I do?  I put that firebrand to the flank of the horse, and off we go at a helter-skelter gallop.  I work so hard at trying to be brilliant at what I’m doing that the horse starts frothing at the mouth.  I’m killing the horse, I don’t notice the flowers’ perfume or the magnificent old trees on the edges of the pasture.  I don’t appreciate the sweetness of the breeze, the touch of the sun on my skin, or the immense power of the animal underneath me. 

I stop enjoying myself because I strive to earn a compliment that was given as a gift. 

Last night at a Spirituality Practice Group at Bongo Java, I realized how much I strive to earn grace.  Scott Owings, the Minister of Spiritual Formation at Otter Creek Church, has been leading us in some Ignatian Contemplation exercises, that is, St. Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuit order in the Roman Catholic Church.  St. Ignatius believed in the importance of “imagination” in the Christian disciplines.

This particular exercise involved imagining that an artist had sculpted my likeness for public exhibition.  The artist gave me a key and as much time as I wanted to examine the statue.  I imagined an old fashioned key with two teeth on it and a trefoil handle.  It let me into a room with hardwood floors.  Each step echoed in the dark.  In the middle, illuminated by light coming through the windows, was my statue.  I tugged the sheet, and it slipped to the floor.  I looked at the statue.  Exaggerated cheekbones; prominent, blade-like nose; deep eye sockets; a mouth opened and hard with effort.  I was naked above the waist and flinging a spear. I talked to the statue.  The statue talked to me.  Jesus came into the room and asked me why I was filled with so much rage, why I felt the need to take power for myself and use it.  “Why won’t you sit at my feet?”  

Why won’t we just sit at his feet? We can no more earn or lose his love than we can stop the sun from shining or change the tides. I’m learning to sit still and receive God’s love for me as the extravagant gift that it is.