Passive or Active? Choosing Your Life

512px-GuidoReni_MichaelDefeatsSatan

Simple words are not so simple. Rather, we forget their meaning. We forget how much they should provoke a reevaluation of our lives. Consider the words “take” and “make.” I’ll try to “make” something of their importance in describing the lives we choose.

Here is a common sentence: “I must make a decision.” It sounds more passive than it is. I have heard the same phrase from non-native English-speakers, slightly altered: “I must take a decision.” As in grab or capture. Even in “making” a decision, at least in its most active form, we “build” or “construct.”

Take stock. Take over. Take responsibility. Make a choice. Make something of yourself.

Do you see where I’m taking you? What kind of life do you want? One you take or one left over because you did not capture a place in line?

We all know not choosing is a choice. If you don’t make a decision someone else will; or, perhaps the opportunity to intervene on your own behalf will pass. Many times an active decision is right even when wrong. You grab hold of the wheel of your life and try to steer. Value resides in ownership of yourself: self possession.

Many of the newer therapeutic models are not as contemplative, reflective, and retrospective as Freudian therapy, but add conceptual, emotional, and behavioral change — action — in the present. True, Freud warned about making personal decisions early in the treatment process, when still burdened by unresolved issues. There is recklessness in acting without thought, but finally one must roll the dice of life or stay on the sidelines, part of the audience. Indeed, one persuasive therapy model goes by the name of ACT (the word, not the initials): Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT leads you to a point of decision about what is important to you, commitment to those revealed values, and an eventual behavioral enactment of your commitment.

You have doubtless noticed women whose companions are men of action, whether thespians, builders, or “makers and shakers.” Indeed, a man pursuing a woman is described as “being on the make.” Some of those “gentlemen” are less than uniformly admirable, but their grasp of initiative is. Many other males (and females) lead lives of “quiet desperation.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. You needn’t be a leader to take charge of your life. Each of us has problems. Our inner life can be like a room filled with shelves of challenges we avoid. One must clear the shelves. We either sweep them clean or avert our eyes and lock the room wherein they reside. We then avoid any part of life reminding us of the courage we lack. Our failure might even be rationalized as good judgment — as an avoidance of danger.

How many people can’t eat out alone, try to make a new friend, or phone a stranger (choosing email instead)? How many of us can’t speak in a group or attend a class out of fear? How many adults can’t say no, ask for things, or look someone in the eye while uttering a necessary truth? If you are 16 and you don’t tackle such challenges, OK. At 56, if you still can’t, what then?

A graduating high school senior tells a younger, awe-struck young man why she couldn’t be with him:

“Charlie, I told you not to think of me that way nine months ago because of what I’m saying now. Not because of Craig (her then boyfriend). Not because I didn’t think you were great. It’s just that I didn’t want to be somebody’s crush. If somebody likes me, I want them to like the real me, not what they think I am. And I don’t want them to carry it around inside. I want them to show me, so I can feel it, too. I want them to be able to do whatever they want around me. And if they do something I don’t like, I’ll tell them.”*

Life in a fetal position is not a life in full. Trying always to please others is a life given away to people who won’t value you because you set your price tag too low. Such an existence is the opposite of “being a man,” a phrase that applies to any mature, confident adult, regardless of gender. Some of us persuade ourselves that the things we don’t do (because we don’t try) aren’t important. A kind of self-delusion. Others live in regret, consumed by “what might have been,” shadowed by the effort they did not “make.”

Regret is the only six-letter word equivalent of a four-letter swear. Unless you do an irreparable injury to another, perpetual regret is like a judge you have assigned the job of looking down on you, pointing an accusing finger eternally.

We all must stretch ourselves to our limit, especially in the first half of life, and learn to hold our head high always. Ironically, in the act of lengthening the spine by standing upright we feel better, and tend to overcome whatever sense of shame lives inside. Few of us, after all, wish to appear spineless.

Passivity isn’t the opposite of activity as much as it is the adversary of “living.”

Make the best of your life. You will die whether you do or not, so you might as well die trying.

*Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books, 1999: 201.

The painting of The Archangel Michael Tramples Satan by Guido Reni is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

10 thoughts on “Passive or Active? Choosing Your Life

  1. Dr. Stein, thanks for another great post. Life can be so challenging at times, that it can seem pointless “to fight the unbeatable foe” (quote from the song “The Impossible Dream”). But, I do believe that we have to die trying. If not, life has no meaning.

    “I have heard the same phrase from non-native English-speakers, slightly altered: “I must take a decision.” As in grab or capture. ”
    ~ Portuguese speakers use the verb “tomar” (to take, seize, capture, grasp, etc.) when coupled with the word “decision.” This would explain their English translation “to take a decision.”
    ~ It’s an interesting observation I’ve never considered.
    ~ Language defines a culture and one’s world view.

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    • Thank you, Rosaliene. I did not know about this phrase in Portuguese, but have heard it from Germans and Italians speaking in English. Your observation about language is a good one.

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  2. Dr G, I’m beginning to think you look inside my head while I sleep 🙂 “I must” is something I’ve become aware of recently… that fearful procrastination. But, I love the line “an active decision is right even when wrong,” I’ll carry that one for future reference.

    It’s interesting what Freud said about making decisions too early in therapy. I find it impossible to change a problem unless I first get to the root cause. I’m in MBT, which maybe isn’t the best for resolving childhood trauma and PTSD, but I’m fortunate to have an experienced Psychotherapist who recognised my need to resolve and now I am at the stage of needing to apply action… so, another nice post to help me on my way!

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    • Thanks, Cat. Just to reassure you, I’m not hiding under the bed! I shouldn’t dismiss Freud’s wisdom regarding the need to figure some things out before you dive into the deep end of the pool, such as how to swim! Still, the rhythm of conventional psychodynamic treatment risks the “uncomfortable comfort” of looking back even when it is past time to look (and act) ahead.

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  3. Forgive me as I am not quite following the train of thought here. Are you saying that it is important to grab the brass ring while you can? Maybe take advantage (make the advantage yours?) of opportunities that come your way? Since I am on the far side of 60, I am keenly aware that opportunities are slipping away. My choices are limited. I have to go with where I am now and not regret the choices that got me here. As I have noted before, the first (presumably) half of my life was all about following the social order – living out life by the book. From any outsider’s perspective, I managed to do that well enough. Yet I find myself still asking (or maybe for the first time) “What is the point of it all?”. The other day I just flashed on this notion: what if there is no point? Where am I getting this idea that there has to be a point to this business of living? Oddly, I found that revelation (maybe there is no point) kind of exciting and curious. I am looking at it with big eyes. I remain confused. But it’s not the first time in my life that I have been confused…..
    Thanks for a thoughtful post. JT

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    • No problem, JT. I tried to say that I think we have internal demons waiting to be slain. Whether their demise leads to a brass ring is another story, although the greater the number of internal limitations you master the more outside possibilities open up. As a fellow member of the “60+ Club,” I still think — given passable health — there is much to explore in the world. As to the question of whether there is a single “meaning,” I have my own doubts and have given up the quest for looking. Confusion, by the way, can open up lots of possibilities. Indeed, as you say, if there is no point, we become more free to throw off whatever our particular chains are. We all have them. Thanks for your provocative comment, as always.

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      • Re: ” there is much to explore in the world” – I had a funny experience this morning. I am still in heavy recovery mode from bilateral knee replacement and, per my physical therapist’s suggestion, I went to a local public pool this morning to do some kind of water work out. The pool had a designated “walking lane” hour and I joined my cadre of old and disabled people. They were all so friendly and warm and welcoming! I had been feeling trepidatious about the whole thing but those wonderful people made me feel welcome and part of the group. Who would have thought? Much to explore, for sure!

        I’ve wondered about just giving up the quest for meaning but, so far, it won’t let me. I don’t know how you give up something that seems so attached to you. Funny thing is, what difference does it make anyway?

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      • Indeed, JT. And if it doesn’t make any difference, can there by any meaning? I was pretty attached to the quest, as well. I think it finally gave up on me! Heal up. We need you on the team!

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  4. […] Dr Gerald Stein writes a nice post on avoiding our fears, taking control, and making the best of life here […]

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