Are You Playing Dead?

Are You Playing Dead?

Reviewing 2013, I thought: This was the year in which I wrote a book and visited Italy. But this was also the year in which I didn't get my blood pressure checked, take up square-dancing or visit my cousins.

I am the passive type. Like many people with low self-esteem, I don't do much. I look and look but almost never leap. I give up automatically. I quit before I start.

Outside observers might see us as easygoing, acquiescent, serene, mild. To what extent are they correct, and to what extent are we merely too depressed, traumatized and/or terrified to take initiative and act?

How did we get this way? Some of us hid from harm in violent or chaotic childhoods by staying silent and still. Mocked, loathed or punished for things we did, we stopped doing things. Like other species, we learned to play dead. Passivity was our survival strategy. The self-loathing motto maintains: The less I do, the less I can do wrong.

So now we are the ones who watch and wait as others walk off laughing, humming, making plans. We are the ones who, asked what we want to do, say: "Whatever you decide."

Self-loathing disconnects us from our own desires. Whatever we might want, and thus whatever we might want to do, is automatically—because we want it—tainted, toxic and suspect. How much simpler it is, in the short-term, to tell ourselves that we want nothing or that we don't know what we want or that we don't care.

Thus we do as little as possible. We fulfill our basic responsibilities. We function, more or less. No living creature is 100 percent frozen. But so many things we could or should do—for ourselves, for others, for the greater good, for fun—we don't.

Here's where appearances become deceptive. Spiritual traditions hail a certain quality that some call stillness. We whom low self-esteem renders passive are certainly still. So how, observing our do-nothingness alongside that of Siddhartha in meditation, say, or Lao Tzu going with the flow, to discern between patience, peace, acceptance, equanimity, obedience, dread, resignation, self-denial and paralysis?

You might say: The sages chose stillness. Ah, but so do we. In being passive, we choose not to choose. The difference between us and them is that we make this choice for the wrong reasons. And while they were still in both body and mind, our minds race ruthlessly. In fact, our grueling mental marathons—self-doubt, self-criticism, fear, regret—drain and distract us into being even more inert.

Ten million billboards scream at us "Just Do It." Pundits say they don't regret things they have done but things they haven't done. But doing nothing seems so easy, so risk-free to us, and habits born of terror are notoriously hard to break.

Start small. Imagine yourself as a cartoon rabbit that has been punched, kicked, then steamrolled flat. Imagine this cute creature comically peeling itself off the asphalt with a sucking sound, then shaking itself off and re-inflating—with, of course, a popping sound—then standing still: not in a fearful frozen way but like the ancient sages, scanning the horizon, assessing what hurts and thinking quietly: OK, I'm on my feet. Where to?

You already do some things. Think of these as twiglets. How, and in which directions, can you help them grow?

We who are passive need not worry quite yet about "just doing it." First, we must learn to "just want it."

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