A goal of mine in these golden years of post-career living is to maintain a “growth mindset.” I hope to grow until I’m shoveled into the furnace.
But last week, I had a disheartening revelation — a reminder, really — that should come as no surprise: try as we might, and grow as we will, our changing natures are not fully in our control. The other characters in our play have a say in the matter.
I’ll spare you the personal details, but the issue is this: other people, most importantly those who matter to us, have a stake in who we are, and a story about us. When that story doesn’t align with our changing reality, the confinement, the resistance, the setback feels disheartening, dispiriting, and unjust.
No matter how much “work” we’ve done, no matter who we think we have become, the person we believe we are is by no means obvious to certain people. In their minds, we are forever who we used to be, or who they prefer us to be. They see what they want to see.
How a Label Commits a Theft
Labels stick. Think of those awful labels that retailers apply to goods to discourage shoplifters, the ones that break apart but stay in place when you try to tear them off.
Labeling people is a form of theft. We are stealing their emotional work, their progress, their evolution, and to some degree, their hope. It’s like talking to an adult as if they are a child because they used to be one. Or regarding a grown man as suspicious because his teenage self once drove drunk. Or condemning a woman throughout her life because she had an affair decades ago during a dysfunctional marriage. It happens all the time.
Leonard Cohen comes to mind. For years a self-infatuated womanizer, he spent five years later in life at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California, much of the time serving an aging monk. The Leonard who left Mount Baldy (and was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1996) was not the same Leonard who lived hedonistically on the Greek Island of Hydra in early adulthood. Yet more people knew him as a preening hedonist than a monk. Who was the real Leonard? Was his self-centeredness expunged or merely laying dormant under a new sheen of humility?
Core Negative Image
In marriage therapy, there’s a useful concept known as Core Negative Image or CNI, a term coined by Terrence Real, a well-known U.S. therapist and teacher. The CNI is our vision of our partner — or anyone else — in their most difficult, irrational, and unbecoming moments. It is a caricatured version based on occasional instances, perhaps long ago put to rest by the offender. But apparently, most of us gravitate emotionally to negatives. It’s like a fight we never finished, or a grudge we never put down.
What stake do we have in maintaining a Core Negative Image or keeping a label affixed? I don’t exactly know. But I suspect it has to do with the psychological stability that our stories provide us, and the deep need some people have to blame others for their feelings of unhappiness or incompleteness or frustration with themselves. It’s cheap and lousy… and common… because misery is soothed by the stories we tell ourselves, including invented ones. Relief is perhaps the single greatest primal urge.
To be with someone who has spent most of your mutual time together with the former you, is often to be time-transported back to that former self, to take on the old patterns imposed by the relationship, with the harsh father, the old girlfriend who always put you down, or the envious sibling or friend.
We don’t want to have to proclaim, “Wait! That’s not me. I’m now this person. Look. See? My record spans years. My heart is attempting to be whole, my actions are usually consistent, my relationships are clean and good!”
So what’s the choice?
Avoidance or Endurance?
Do we avoid those people because they don’t actually love us, despite professions of love? Do we exhibit the evidence (maybe in a PowerPoint presentation)? Do we gather the testimonies of those who spend time with us regularly and have excellent proof of our virtues?
Or do we just swallow it? Do we live with a bad deal, continuing to model the behavior we have grown into while submitting to the false accusations and righteous mind-closure of others because… why?
I don’t know.
I do know that I fall into the same trap. When I haven’t witnessed someone for a while, I seldom wonder with untainted curiosity who they might be when I next see them. I’m more likely to categorize them the way I always have, to focus on the past-them, as if humans never change.
But I’m on it. It’s time to stop that. I don’t like it in others when they aim it at me. I feel an obligation to curb it vigorously in myself.
I intend to change in me what I don’t like in others.
Confucius apparently said: “The one who would be constant in happiness must frequently change.”
Oh, it’s you again.
Another sage worth consulting on this issue is Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest born in Bombay in 1931 (died: 1987) who, like Allan Watts, blended Eastern and Western spiritual philosophy. A little book that was created from de Mello’s talks, entitled Awareness, is a touchstone for those afflicted with ego — in other words, all of us.
This chunky passage gets right at the heart of what I’m trying to say about growing in the face of resistance:
Almost everything and every person we look at, we look at in a prejudiced way…
… A religious sister from India goes out to make a retreat. Everybody in the community is saying, “Oh, we know, that’s part of her charisma; she’s always attending workshops and going to retreats; nothing will ever change her.” Now, it so happens that the sister does change at this particular workshop, or therapy group, or whatever it is. She changes; everyone notices the difference. Everyone says, “My, you’ve really come to some insights, haven’t you?” She has, and they can see the difference in her behavior, in her body, in her face. You always do when there’s an inner change. It always registers in your face, in your eyes, in your body. Well, the sister goes back to her community, and since the community has a prejudiced, fixed idea about her, they’re going to continue to look at her through the eyes of that prejudice. They’re the only ones who don’t see any change in her. They say, “Oh well, she seems a little more spirited, but just wait, she’ll be depressed again.” And within a few weeks she is depressed again; she’s reacting to their reaction. And they all say, “See, we told you so; she hadn’t changed.” But the tragedy is that she had, only they didn’t see it. Perception has devastating consequences in the matter of love and human relationships.
“How,” asks de Mello, “can you love someone whom you do not even see?”
Who are you not seeing these days?