Anger #19 Why We Avoid

Comment: In terms of understanding, this is probably the most important section of the program. The basic difficulty is to turn the understanding into action.

MacQuarrie Email Program #19 — Why We Avoid

AcediaEvolutionFor a number of emails, we have been looking at the ways we avoid, and some of the tools for better choice, but the question remains as to why we avoid. For me, the question is important because it gets at the nature of change in our society. Your task for this email is to explore your own process of avoidance, to investigate what stops you from engaging in growth work.

I was a physician-psychotherapist for almost twenty-five years, mainly doing weekend workshops on anger management together with group therapy — the groups were for those individuals who wanted to work with me in more depth.

From extended feedback, I came to believe the workshops were very powerful for inducing change, yet they were only a single weekend. (For example, over the years, a probation officer sent me more than sixty clients, and of those, he was aware of only two individuals who re-offended — an incredible statistic. A senior police officer told me that my program was the most powerful program he had ever experienced: “Through Dave’s approach, a permanent solution is available; through other approaches, the solution is temporary.” Powerful praise, indeed!)

The individuals in the therapy groups met weekly, and spontaneously divided into two streams. One part (about 50%) worked hard; at least every month, each person would identify an issue, and work on it. The other individuals were much more passive; seldom would they do in-depth processing, yet they showed up every week, often for several years. If I gave them small tasks, they would often do them half-heartedly; if I challenged them (albeit gently), they would talk about how afraid they were of the risks of change.

Without intending criticism, I came to think of them as lazy or fearful, and that these issues were spiritual or existential processes, not therapy issues. Gradually I decided that my only option of working with them was passive challenge. When eventually they decided to fully engage with therapy, the work went well, but often it was a waiting game, sometimes for years.

When I was finally considering retirement, the opportunity arose for me to do my PhD, and as a consequence, I decided to research laziness and fearfulness as my dissertation project. By this point, I also came to believe that laziness and fearfulness were underlying issues in global warming. As I proceeded, I became aware of the ancient process called acedia (named by the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th century), and I came to believe that modern acedia was any combination of laziness, fearfulness, and self-righteousness, all actions that block the individual from engaging in the processes of emotional maturity (therapy by any other name).

So what is acedia? Imagine that something painful happens to you. If you have enough wisdom (known as sophia — effective knowledge), you will resolve the issue (via phronesis — practical wisdom or judgment), and move on. If not, likely you will have an internal conflict amongst the sailors. If you have enough discipline, you will work through the issues, and move on. If not, you will tend to avoid the pain — but with enough hope, you will continue to explore options, and find resolution. All this will be easier to accomplish if you can remain playful and non-anxious as you explore awareness.

If all this fails, you will move into acedia, and get stuck in a loop of blocking awareness, as well as chronic pain, which you are likely to push below awareness, repressing or denying the pain. Unfortunately, in our technological culture, there is little validation of the processes of wisdom (knowledge per se is not wisdom), discipline (except in sports), hope (except wishful thinking), and playfulness (competitive games per se are not playful). Thus acedia predominates.

Complex mechanisms support acedia; these arise from the centuries of becoming this fast-paced society. From my perspective, society has promised many dreams, but failed to deliver “the good life.” Considering trauma to be “hurt (pain) that overwhelms,” I believe that the chronic irritation of the many hassles of daily life is a form of low-grade trauma, and has accumulated to the extent that now almost everyone in our Western world is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet denial remains the major but surface issue.

A balance of forces, heavily weighted to acedia

When you consider your own anger, what underlies it? How and why are you caught such that you want to engage in this program? Why is there so much divorce in our marital relationships? What is there so much domestic violation? What is happening to our sense of community?

This cultural angst is then fed into our personal lives, both in the ways in which dysfunctional family dynamics further traumatize us, and in the ways in which we individually traumatize ourselves with self-criticism, especially not living up to the shoulds and fantasies of our society.

All this perpetuates a vicious cycle of acedia in response to the hassle and denial of our culture. Is it any wonder then that we are so angry, individually and as a culture? We have trapped ourselves in this cycle, the exit of which requires that we find ways to engage in therapy, perhaps then being labelled as “mentally ill” or somehow emotionally unstable, because we are in therapy. Wow! What a trap we have created.

Having a Captain

So what is the exit. I call it “having a Captain.” For me, an effective captain is a firm compassionate leader of the sailors. I was deeply influenced by two sources: 1) Ed Friedman with his teachings of emotional triangles, and 2) the book Leaders: Strategies For Taking Charge. The Captain is a leader of the sailors, and thus the Captain:

  • has a clear vision of where the ship needs to go, and how to get there.
  • establishes followership, the sailors, who want to cooperate in running the ship.
  • listens to, and negotiates with, the sailors to do the necessary work of cooperation.
  • sets firm boundaries within the functioning of the sailors so as to minimize mutiny.
  • leads the sailors, but attends strongly to self-care as the basis of responding to others.

How do you find your Captain? It is not easy to do so, and it is not easy to describe how to do so. Most important — be a participant-observer of your own internal conflicts, watching for those sailors who demonstrate wisdom. Risk going beyond your normal behaviours (especially beyond your acedia), while making wise choices of these behaviors. You will make mis-takes! Study and learn from them. Learn your own truths! Over time, and trial, your Captain emerges.

Coming next: Living Your Values

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