Everything in us is Workable

The title of this post is a play on the title of a wonderful book, Everything is Workable, by Diane Musho Hamilton, an integral thinker specializing in conflict resolution and mediation. I thought about this turn of phrase as I was reflecting on my recent post that talked about challenging our instincts and drives. While I tried to re-enforce that this wasn’t about a kind of dualism where the body and its urges are ‘bad’ and the mind is ‘good’, I wasn’t entirely happy with where I left that thought. Because, ultimately, I don’t think it’s about fighting against our natural drives, but about working with them.  

I came across a great example of what I mean by this the other day in an old conversation on the subject of creativity between Jonathan Fields, founder of the Good Life Project, and the writer Elizabeth Gilbert. I come back to this interview every few months whenever my creative juices need a boost. In the interview, when asked about what holds people back from creativity, Gilbert says:

It’s always fear [that stifles creativity]. It’s always fear that stops people from doing it. And I think for me the best lessons I’ve ever had about fear, and I think what I regard as the biggest misconceptions going on out there about fear is that fear is something to be conquered. And I really have come to hate the language that grows up around the conquering of fear, the sort of extreme outdoor sports language that’s sort of like ‘Kick fear in the ass! Punch it in the face! Wake up and tell your fear who’s boss!’ That’s really aggressive and really macho, and I don’t know about you, but my experience in life is anything that I fight fights me back harder. Whenever I come swinging at anything, it’s like, ‘What? I’m under threat? Let me show you how terrifying I can be now.’ Right? That’s when my fear doubles down — when I try to attack it.

What she describes here is a textbook example of what Jung would call the shadow. This is the idea that whatever aspects of our personality or experience we deny or repress — in this case fear — will eventually fight back and demand to be heard. Examples of this phenomenon are everywhere, from the celibate priest who becomes a sexual predator to the anti-gay activist who spends his evenings hooking up with men, to the well-intentioned dieter whose hard work is undone by a binge of jelly donuts at night. It’s one of those things that when you start to notice it you can’t not see it. But what’s the alternative?

Gilbert continues:

Someone came to me the other day and asked me, ‘Tell us how you conquered your fear.’ I was like, ‘It’s adorable that you think I’ve conquered my fear. I’m terrified all the time. But, I walk next to my fear hand in hand with it. I’ve befriended it and the first way that I befriended it was by recognizing what a magnificent force it is and how much I owe to it. All of us who are alive at this moment, who are adults, are alive because at some point in our life, fear saved our life. …Whenever I feel my fear arise, instead of hating on it and being afraid of it, the very first thing I say to it is, ‘May I take this moment to thank you for everything that you have ever done for me and my ancestors?’

There’s a lot to unpack here. First is simply the recognition that fear (and again, insert your emotion, trait or drive of choice here) isn’t going anywhere. It’s a part of us. Related to this is the second point: that these emotions, traits and drives are in us because they are helpful. They help keep us alive, both as individuals and as a species. They are incredibly powerful tools. The problem isn’t their existence but that, while they are wonderful tools, they make for terrible masters. The last thing I’d like to highlight from this section of the interview is, as silly as it may sound, addressing whatever it is we’re trying to work with: neither giving it control nor trying to silence it, but to acknowledge and engage with it.

Continuing on with Gilbert’s point:

And then I say, ‘But in this moment, I need to let you know, because I know you don’t have a lot of subtlety, Grandfather Fear, I don’t really need your services right now because all I’m trying to do is write a poem. No one is going to die. … You can come along with me. Me and creativity are doing this thing together. I know you’re always around. It’s okay. But I’m going to do it anyway because I need to do it.’ And somehow that voice, just the voice, makes fear drop the gun.

This response may be a bit over the top, but it beautifully demonstrates the idea of working with ourselves in a way so that we are neither governed by our fear nor suppress it in an unhealthy way. And the same can work for anything, I think: our anger, our appetite, our libido, or any unwelcome emotion or experience. “Thanks for everything you do and everything you’ve done; I see what you’re wanting to do here, and I appreciate it, but right now I’m going to _________ instead.”

One of the reasons I like what she says here so much is that I have first-hand experience of what happens when this doesn’t happen. One consistent feature of the series of major and minor setbacks I experienced a few years ago was my refusal to pay attention to and own my emotions about them: whether it was grief, loss, heartbreak, or just disappointment, I needed so badly to be ‘strong’ and ‘okay’ or to respect others’ feelings and truths that I didn’t respect my own emotional experience. I was using good and helpful tools, like perspective-taking and challenging the scripts around my experiences, but I was using them inexpertly and ended up cutting myself off from my feelings about those experiences rather than living with them. What I had thought was a mature, if stoic, way of moving forward was in fact a damaging repression of my fears and hurts. It was a coping mechanism, and it worked in that it helped me to survive a very difficult season, but it certainly wasn’t the healthiest way to go about it. And as a result, even the small setbacks took a lot longer to get over than they really should have. It wasn’t until I started to own my feelings and work with them that I was able to move forward in a whole and healthy way.

Integral theorists speak about healthy growth in terms of “transcend and include.” It’s a way of saying that we can’t really move forward in life by leaving parts of ourselves behind. Because, of course, we can’t leave parts of ourselves behind. No matter how hard we try, the parts of ourselves that we either can’t or don’t want to accept come along for the ride. Always. We can no more leave our our fight-flight-freeze-faint-feed-fuck drives behind than we can leave our our pancreas, liver, or bladder behind. They’re a part of us. And so, we invite them along, out in the open, where we can see them, address them, and work with them.

This is I think one of the most helpful contributions contemporary thought can offer ancient spiritual traditions. Our faith traditions call us away from being caught by our egos and enslaved by our basic drives, but aren’t great at telling us how to go about this in a healthy and whole way. Most of us have seen enough bad and incongruous fruit from otherwise good people — the caring priest who leers, the holy monk caught up in fanciful conspiracy theories, the wise guru who ends up being a jerk — to recognize that something is off. (Even as I type, one of North America’s largest Buddhist groups is reeling from the revelation that its beloved leader has been accused of being a serial sexual predator.) It seems to me that learning to work with our drives — to challenge them and question them, yes (because they are horrible masters) but not ignore or repress them — is a far healthier path toward the true, integrated, openhearted freedom to which we aspire.

Because, at the end of the day, everything is workable, even the parts of ourselves we’d rather not have to do deal with.

8 thoughts on “Everything in us is Workable

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