Think of love as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.“Love in Times of Cholera” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Six feet apart. 72 inches. The wingspan of a bald eagle.
The distance meant to protect us physically has harmed many psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. As Governor Andrew Cuomo recently put it, “People are struggling with the emotions as much as they are struggling with the economics.” The emotions vary in content and intensity: anxious, depressed, bored, and all that flows from couped-uped-ness, from mild to griddle hot.
Because it was a natural evolution from the book that preceded it, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, and because I’m just fascinated by how people manage to hold on to their vitality and life force against all the downward-pulling forces of life and culture.
In the Introduction to Vital Signs, you write that the book is geared towards “being in love with life” versus your first book, Callings, that addressed “doing what you love”. In what ways are the two the same thing? In what ways are they different?
They’re similar in that doing what you love is among the active ingredients of being in love with life, and being in love with life is a mindset that lends itself to looking for ways to stay that way, and doing what you love is one of them.
As for distinctions between them, I look at the two books this way: Callings:Finding and Following an Authentic Life was more about finding a passion, and Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion is more about livingpassionately. Developing the skill, the stance, of passion that can inform all arenas of your life, not just the vocational.
In your mind, can a failure to live a passionate life cause and/or contribute to true clinical depression? How so? Can you give us any examples?
I believe so, yes. For starters, if you’re not expressing your passion and vitality, whether in your work or love life, creative or spiritual life, then you’re probably suppressing it, or repressing it, or depressing it, which all mean the same thing: pushing it down. And whatever we refuse to express will either explode or implode, and I think depression is a form of imploding. Here’s an example from my own files:
I’m not generally prone to depression, but a couple of years ago I had a nasty bout of it. I was sleeping too much, feeling lazy, bored, disconnected from everything and everyone, lacking initiative but restless. I just felt profoundly off, and I couldn’t get to the bottom of it.
Until I had a dream of being chased by an enormous black dragon—the size of a T-rex with wings—and feeling like a rabbit who couldn’t find a hole to duck into.
I tried fighting off the dragon with a safety pin, and finally, out of sheer fright (and, I remember, a distinct sense of incredulousness that I wasn’t going to be rescued at the last second, like in the movies), I woke up. Literally woke up from the dream.
My interpretation of the dream was that the dragon was my writing. My real writing. Not the academic-style stuff I’d been doing a lot of at that point, but the freewriting practice I meant to be doing alongside it, and wasn’t. In a sense, I was playing it safe with all that cautious, academic writing—thus the absurdly inadequate safety-pin defense—when I should have been doing more passionate, intuitive writing.
But the dragon woke me up, literally and figuratively, and over the next few months I started doing my real writing again—and here’s the punch line: the boredom and depression lifted.
That experience reminded me how closely related depression and repression can be.
In your experience, what are some of the reasons people don’t follow their passions?
One reason is that people often put security before passion. There’s nothing wrong with security, but when it routinely takes precedence over your passion and aliveness, you’re courting disaster (a word that means “against one’s stars.”) I once heard it said that heroism/heroinism can be redefined for the modern age as the ability to tolerate paradox. To hold two seemingly contrary ideas/impulses/energies/beliefs inside you at the same time and still retain the ability to function. In this case, passion and security. Which don’t cancel each other out. They’re both true. We need both of them. And they both need to be brought to the bargaining table to hammer out a treaty that’s going to serve them both, rather than trying to stuff one or the other under the floorboards just to be rid of the tension.
Another reason involves the kinds of suppression and repression that are common to certain styles of parenting, schooling, gendering, bibling, and corporate enculturation, where you’re encouraged to leave maybe the best parts of you out in the parking lot when you punch in, like your emotional life, your personal life, even your spiritual life. I recently consulted with a woman who told me that when she was growing up, her parents sent her to her room for any displays of “negative emotions,” like tears, anger or frustration. That is, punished her. Banished her.
So it’s no surprise that at 40, after a lifetime of repressing half her emotional
repertoire, she’s feeling blocked from being her full powerful self, the one she’s going to need in order to be the healer she intuits herself to be. She quite rightly refers to her mission at 40 as “soul retrieval.”
What tips can you give our readers about how they can begin to follow their passions?
For starters, it might be useful to begin identifying where you lose it. Where it leaks out of your life. Which routines, relationships, involvements or beliefs drain your energies, and which ones revitalize them. Maybe it’s a job that sucks the life out of you, or a relationship in which you feel like a ghost of your full vital self, or your eager, capable mind being put in dull circumstances, or any involvement that’s literally de-meaning. Lacking in any sense of meaning or purpose.
Maybe it’s socializing out of guilt or obligation, driving in rush hour traffic when you don’t have to, television, letting yourself be trapped by talkaholics, or doing your own taxes rather than farming it out.
Secondly, it’s important to understand that passion can be cultivated.
Turned on as well as turned off. It’s not one from the “either you’ve got it or you don’t” department. And cultivating it happens most readily at the level of the gesture and the moment, not the 5-year plan or the extreme makeover. Though even at the micro-level, action is ultimately required. Especially spontaneous action. The equation is: ready, fire, aim.
I was sitting around with some friends one evening recently when one of them said, “You know what the problem is? We’re not outrageous enough.” When I asked him what he would do if he were to be more outrageous, he thought for a moment, then reached up and swept his hair from middle-parted and slicked back to side-parted with a cowlick dangling from his forehead—instantly transforming him from Richard to Ricardo. And he said, “I’d come into work like this.”
The point is: start with the subtlest impulse to express yourself and act on your passions, and build from there. Begin identifying little moments of choice that lead you either toward or away from your sense of aliveness.
I think it’s important to distinguish, also, between healthy and unhealthy passion. In other words, there’s a difference between being called and being driven, and not all passions should be acted on. There’s something called harmonious passion (flexible persistence toward an activity and more of a flow state) and obsessive passion (persistence at any cost, the passion controlling you rather than the other way around, and self-esteem and identity all wrapped up in performance).
There’s also primary and secondary motivation. Doing something for it’s own sake—for the charge or challenge of it—and doing something for a payoff (whether money, power, sex, fame, or attention).
And there’s a pretty simple test to determine which one is in the driver’s seat: when the payoffs dry up, do you still do the work? Are your passions still intact?
He is a lecturer and seminar-leader in the business, educational, governmental, faith-based and human-potential arenas, and has keynoted and presented workshops at The Smithsonian Institution, the EPA, Microsoft, and Amerian Express, to name a few. He is also a frequent media guest on ABC, CNN, NPR, PBS, and others.
It’s in the darkness of men’s eyes that they get lost – Black Elk
Graduating from law school is both exciting and frightening at the same time. There’s a real itch to put our knowledge into action, to be a bona fide “attorney at law” and to start making some dough instead of spending it on tuition and books. On the other hand, we really don’t know a lot about the application of legal theory to legal combat, may have a heap of debt and pray that our first stab at competency doesn’t land us face first on the courthouse steps.
Beyond all of these pragmatic concerns is the meatier matter of living a life in the law that matters; a life in accord with our inner core of what we truly value in life. As author Studs Turkel once wrote:
“Work is about a daily search for meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short for a sort of life, rather than a Monday-to-Friday sort of dying.”
Lawyers, young and old alike, find it difficult to live out their values in the workplace, to search for “meaning as well as daily bread.” There are challenges and compromises, some more difficult than others. For example, we may really value spending time with our family. But as the demands of our career mount, we become untethered from this life-giving sustenance as we spend more and more time toiling at the office.
Andrew Benjamin, Ph.D., J.D., a lead researcher in studies about the mental health of law students and lawyers, concludes that much of the dissatisfaction in the profession comes from a widening gap between the values we truly care about and the things we end up pursuing in in our jobs as lawyers. This takes place over time and its effects are cumulative. Many end up leaving the profession. Or, if they stay, are mired in unhappiness, discontent and can’t see a way out.
Dr. Benjamin found that approximately 20% of lawyers – about twice the national average – aren’t just unhappy; they’re suffering from clinical anxiety or depression. We aren’t talking about everyday stress, sadness, blues or categorical grumpiness. We’re talking rubber to the road clinical anxiety and depression; devastating diseases that cause breakdowns in every area of one’s life. Put in perspective, Benjamin’s studies suggest that a whopping 200,000 of this nation’s 1 million lawyers are struggling – some very badly.
Certainly a gap between our values and the way we live as lawyers doesn’t cause depression. But it’s one of many factors that include a history of depression in one’s family and emotional abuse and/or neglect during one’s formative years that make a person prone to depression.
Lawyers also seem to have a particularly fearsome type of stress overload; a jacked central nervous system fueled by the adversarial nature of the trade. Modern science now knows that there is a powerful connection between chronic and remitting stress and the development of clinical depression. As I wrote in “How Stress and Anxiety Become Depression,” chronic stress and anxiety causes the release of too many fight-or-flight hormones such as cortisol which damages areas of the brain that have been implicated in depression: the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory) and the amygdala (involved in how we perceive fear).
The point of all this sobering news isn’t to rain on anyone’s parade. Law can and should be a noble calling and a satisfying way to make a living. Rather, these warnings are meant to impart some thorny wisdom: living out your values and dreams are just as important as – to quote my brother Wally’s favorite expression, “carving out a living”. Or, as Studs Terkel earlier surmised: “. . . to have a sort of life, rather than a Monday-to-Friday sort of dying.”
It’s scary when you sense that you’ve wasted a lot of time doing a type of law – or law at all – that fails to connect with your deeper values. Part of the fear is driven by the growing sense as we age that we don’t have forever – we are finite beings. When we don’t know the way, can’t find path to move our outer life closer to our inner life, we can experience a sort of existential terror. We may be sitting in a classroom, at court or just wandering downtown during our lunch break and a visceral sense that we yearn for something else will hit us. How many of us quickly dismiss such thoughts as minor meanderings that aren’t worth our time. But, these thoughts may keep coming. Listen to them. If we don’t, we may risk greater peril.
“Of course, most people won’t follow a calling until the fear of doing so is finally exceeded by the pain of not doing so – pain that we appear to have an appalling high threshold for. Eventually the prospect of emotional and financial turmoil, the disapproval of others and the various conniptions of change, can begin to seem preferable to the psychological death you are experiencing by staying put. Those who refuse their passions and purposes in life, though, who are afraid of becoming what they perhaps already are – unhappy – won’t of course experience the unrest (or the joy) that usually accompanies the embrace of a calling. Having attempted nothing, they haven’t failed, and they console themselves that if none of their dreams come true then at least neither will their nightmares.”
So remember your values and where they are trying to lead you. That’s realistic. Our values are not set in granite; they can and will change over time. Yet the only tuning fork you will ultimately have is trying to build a solid bridge between who you really are and what you are in the real world. We can and will hit choppy waters as we sail our ships in our careers. There will be many temptations – money, power. This story has been played out for millennia. As you go through your career, watch the currents and stir your ship bravely, with integrity and passion.
As Apple founder Steve Jobs wrote:
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s grievances drown out your own inner voice; and most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Lawyers often sense that their lives have gone off track; they just don’t know how to fix them. They’re hit by daily demands that make it difficult to find their true north.
There are the demands that hurtle at them from the lives they occupy – the boss that’s yammering for more billable hours, families that feel upset by all the hours they spend at work or you-name-it-crap from this frenzied world.
Then there are the demands that emanate from somewhere inside of them; the part of themselves – their true selves – that wants a life with less stress, more meaning and a sense of connectedness to other people. While they pine for such a life while looking outside their law office windows, such reverie gives them a brief respite from the grind. But after the moment has passed, there’s an abiding sorrow. A sense that something has been lost that can’t be found.
Perpetual stress can keep lawyers from ever dealing – in a constructive and persistent way – with what they really want in life. They check their Blackberry’s more than check in with themselves. They don’t really know what they want most of the time; they just know that it’s not this. Emotional pain may be leaking out of them; for some lawyers, this has been going on for years. The pain might be mitigated in healthy (e.g. exercise) or unhealthy (e.g. drinking, drugs) ways. But, it will not go away – until they turn around and face themselves.
Lawyers need to become conscious of the choices they’re making during their waking hours. Of course, there’re exceptions, but the majority of lawyers have choices. They aren’t victims that are being forced to stay at their jobs. They’re choosing to stay at their jobs and do the work they’re paid to do.
Most lawyers, however, just don’t see it this way. They feel stuck in their jobs and lives with few viable alternatives. As odd as it may sound, they feel like victims. Friends of mine who aren’t lawyers scoff at my observation: “Lawyers victims? Give me a break.” Nonetheless, it’s true on an emotional level for many lawyers.
Lawyers can feel this way because (a) the “golden handcuffs” in which they’re just making too much money to quit; (b) they’re in too much debt; (c) they’d rather complain than face the abject fear that comes with making tough changes; or (d) they’re simply paralyzed by stress, anxiety or depression.
However, by turning from a stuck-victim status to a choice-maker posture they can begin to awaken to their true potential. They might have to make small changes in their lives or maybe a closet full of whoppers. Perhaps they’ll have to go back to the drawing board of their lives and sift through and separate what’s really important versus what’s trivial. This will take time; let nobody fool you on this one. People in our country are basically impatient; we want relief from our distress NOW. But, meaningful and realistic changes never seem to unfold this way. That’s just the facts-o-life.
Turning your life around may come down to this: What are you willing to doto change your life? Lots of people — not just lawyers — know that their lives aren’t working. The same group approaches their lives with all the right intentions of changing it for better. Most, however, will not change despite the chorus of voices from within telling them to do so.
I had a friend who would call me once a month and lament how unhappy he was. I’d listen for thirty minutes and then he, having discharged his discomfort, would say goodbye only to repeat this weather pattern about thirty days later.
Finally, six month in this telephonic waltz, I said “Tom, what are you willing to do to change your about life?” The question must have stunned him like a taser because there was silence — a dead silence — on the other end of the line. He evaded the question, said we would have to get together soon for lunch and hung up. Tom never called again.
Tom didn’t really want to change – – he wanted to bitch, a common past-time for many lawyers. He wanted my sympathetic ear to appreciate just how much he’d been screwed over by opposing counsel, an irate judge or his cranky wife. I had sympathy for Tom, but also a good deal of frustration because I realized that I wasn’t really helping him.
I would ask you the reader: “What are you willing to do to change your life” Are you willing to the feel the free floating anxiety that’s inevitable if you are to start changing your life? The longer the discontent goes on, the bigger the changes will have to be. The longer we delay, the bigger the kick in the pants from Life to wake us up.
Yes, work is only a part of life and many lawyers no doubt find outlets of meaning and joy along other avenues. However, as Gregg Levoy, author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, such sizing up of our days miscalculates the energy and time we must invest in our daily jobs:
“Work is merely one of the arenas in which you play the game – the one the Gods are watching from the press-box atop Mount Olympus while sipping mint juleps. It is only one of the arenas in which you express your humanity, search for meaning, play out your destiny and dreams, contribute your energies and gifts to the world and spend your precious nick of time. It is also an arena in which you spend two-thirds of your waking lifetime and it is legitimate to love your work! Life is a thousand times too short to bore yourself. If someday your life does flash in front of your eyes, the very least you want it to do is hold your interest.”