James Hollis on Lethargy and Fear

In Living an Examined Life, James Hollis writes the following:

“Life’s two biggest threats we carry within: fear and lethargy… Those perverse twins munch on our souls every day. No matter what we do today, they will turn up again tomorrow. Over time, they usurp more days of our lives than those to which we may lay fair claim.”

Those words (from Chapter 2: It’s Time to Grow Up) struck me forcefully. I recognize this struggle in myself, and it’s also in the forefront of my mind now because I recently observed Yom Kippur – a day of fasting and atonement, and also reflection on my actions and what I’d like to change (and how I’d like to make those changes).

The effects of fear and lethargy often emerge in different kinds of avoidance. Avoiding specific efforts, backing down in various ways, complying without true conviction, disengaging from meaningful activities and turning to repetitive, numbing behaviors, or seeking what Hollis describes as “fundamentalist forms of thinking that finesse subtlety, fuzz opposites, seek simplistic solutions to complex issues, and still our spirit’s distress with the palliative balm of certainty.”

I also think lethargy can be born of fear. What looks superficially like laziness (like the choice to watch hours of TV) is sometimes a way of procrastinating because you’re afraid of what will happen if you act. It’s a way of hiding, remaining unnoticeable and as such more impervious to attack and less likely to suffer the disappointment of failure. (Though you may later suffer the regret that you didn’t act.)

Obviously some fears are warranted and need to be managed reasonably. And it’s ok to relax too. If you’ve worked hard, made various efforts during the day, you can take a break. The danger is when fear and lethargy begin to dominate you. I need to watch out for this myself – to pay attention to behaviors that are mere distractions from what’s important or avoidance techniques in response to things I need to face.

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Healthy Anger as Part of Healing from Emotional Abuse

A while ago I wrote a post called “If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship…” It describes many aspects of emotional abuse and what victims typically experience.

Reading it again, I realize that I wrapped up the post in a somewhat tentative way. I wrote how one of the first steps towards healing is to understand the abuse and its dynamics – to maintain distance and recognize what’s going on. And that’s true. You need to do that to experience some healing. But of course it isn’t enough.

What else can you do? What’s a key part of the process of finding yourself again, waking up, and gaining strength?

Healthy Anger

Anger is a natural reaction to abuse. However, when you’re living in the midst of abuse, your anger may have no healthy outlet.

For example, a child in a dysfunctional home often gets punished for showing normal emotions, including anger. What happens then? The anger turns inward. It rips into the psyche and digs into the body. It helps create depression and self-loathing, and possibly gastrointestinal complaints and other health problems.

The anger may leap outwards at various targets. The victim may also take up addictive behaviors, like drinking or eating too much, to help cope with these overpowering but buried feelings.

Often, victims of abuse aren’t aware of just how angry they are. They don’t always connect their ravaged psyche or destructive behaviors with their suppressed emotions.

That’s why expressing anger is such a critical part of healing. When you’re healing from abuse, you need to let out the anger and understand it.

Letting out anger doesn’t mean destroying other people or harming yourself. The anger may come out in sessions with a therapist, hopefully a space that’s safe for you. It may involve screaming in a room. While remaining in the present, you might confront the past, naming the abuse out loud and explicitly placing the responsibility for it on the perpetrator. It can mean just letting yourself feel the anger – knowing what it is and where it comes from and riding it out as it pours out of you. Maybe you can find additional outlets for it in vigorous exercise or artistic expression.

I don’t think our culture deals with anger in a healthy way (where I live, in the U.S.). More often, what I see is a pressure on abuse victims to quickly forgive. In the name of being virtuous, in the name of “moving on,” victims are urged to resolve everything with speed and minimal fuss and then act as if it never happened. But that isn’t how people heal. You can’t force people to forgive their abusers. If forgiveness comes, it must be natural. (I also don’t think forgiveness will look the same for different situations and offenses.)

People are afraid even of healthy anger, because it isn’t tidy and neat. It doesn’t lead to simple resolutions and to problems getting swept away and blissfully ignored. Even as it heals you, it’s harrowing. It’s painful and potentially overwhelming. It doesn’t come out all at once. Maybe it never fully leaves you. But it can be put to good use. It can motivate you, remind you of your mental, spiritual, and emotional needs, and help you assert your boundaries and defend your dignity.

As a victim of emotional abuse, you may never have learned to understand, feel, or express anger in a healthy way. In recognizing it and finding a way to express it that doesn’t destroy yourself or others, you may find yourself experiencing other effects: less guilt and self-loathing, a more vivid inner life, a painful but necessary awakening, a need to change the way you live. It can generate an urge to locate yourself when you think the abuse has weakened or demolished you. You’re finding yourself in the rubble and pushing your way out.

RIP Marion Woodman

I first learned about her through this interview, where her thoughts on addiction and perfectionism struck me:

“They are never where they are; they are always running, or dreaming about the wonderful past, or the wonderful future. So they are never in the body. The body lives in the present. The body exists right now. But an addict is not in the body, so the body suffers. Uninhabited. And there’s where that terrible sense of starvation comes from.”

Recently I started reading one of her books, The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation, and it’s a summons to fight stagnation:

“People splayed in a perpetual chrysalis… are in trouble. Stuck in a state of stasis, they clutch their childhood toys, divorce themselves from the reality of their present circumstances, and sit hoping for some magic that will release them from their pain into a world that is ‘just and good,’ a make-believe world of childhood innocence. Fearful of getting out of relationships that are stultifying their growth, fearful of confronting parents, partners or children who are maintaining infantile attitudes, they sink into chronic illness and/or psychic death. Life becomes a network of illusions and lies. Rather than take responsibility for what is happening, rather than accept the challenge of growth, they cling to the rigid framework that they have constructed or that has been assigned to them from birth. They attempt to stay ‘fixed.’ Such an attitude is against life, for change is a law of life.”

I wanted to share this passage in part because that last line is a necessary reminder to not resist the inevitable changes and to not avoid the changes that could help me grow.

Is This Really Love?

If someone gives you the message that they’ll love you only if you’re less capable, kind, intelligent, or courageous than you really are (or can be), what they love is a diminished version of you.

Maybe they don’t love you at all, or maybe their capacity to love is damaged by personal problems, such as a profound insecurity.

When people love each other, they feed each other’s strength. A person who loves you doesn’t try to make you weak and miserable.

Surprising insights from Neelix’s struggle in Mortal Coil

I recently watched an episode of Star Trek: Voyager called “Mortal Coil,” where one of the characters, Neelix, suffers a loss of faith and becomes suicidal.

During the episode, he dies on a dangerous mission and is resuscitated hours later. Because he remembers nothing from the moment he died to the moment he was restored to conscious life, he starts thinking that his faith in an afterlife has been based on a lie.

NeelixChakotayMortalCoil

Years ago, his family was murdered in a war, and he long believed that he would see them again in this afterlife. The realization that he might not – that there’s nothing there – wounds him deeply to the extent that he questions the meaning of life and the point of living.

There are two things that really stuck with me from this episode:

When Neelix reaches the point of wanting to kill himself, Chakotay, the ship’s First Officer, tries to convince him not to. After Neelix speaks with certainty of what he now knows about his beliefs, Chakotay says,

“You don’t know. You’re not there yet.”

To me, those were the most powerful words in the episode. Chakotay was telling Neelix that he had rushed to a premature judgment about his life and faith. The crisis he was going through wasn’t an end state. It could be the start of something new, including an even stronger faith or a deeper understanding of his life’s purpose.

The second thing that stuck with me was how the episode affirms the need for relationships, community, and a sense of purpose to help make life worth living. Recovery from despair is much more difficult when someone is adrift. Neelix is re-focused at the end on what he does for the ship, the meaning of his work, and his important relationships with others, including his goddaughter.

The ending might be too tidy (and on Star Trek in general, the writers often struggled to understand and portray effects of trauma and the work of psychologists or therapists), but at least there’s an emphasis on an ongoing process over quick solutions. Neelix will continue working through his crisis with Chakotay. His relationship with his beliefs and with other people, both the living ones and the dead, aren’t static. They can change in various ways over time; they can deepen, become stronger, or be perceived with new understanding. Maybe he won’t lose his beliefs permanently. Maybe he will find a new way to understand his life and its meaning and take nourishment from how he lives among people. It’s an ongoing process, this journey full of questions, this struggle with its crises, and this ability to change. He hasn’t reached a definitive end.

(Image credit: Memory Alpha.)