The Power of Your Past

The art of recalling, reclaiming, and recasting.

Robert Downey Jr.'s Lesson: When to Say Yes and No

Tips for those on the margin, the over-differentiated among us

yeses
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Robert Downey Jr. used to be on the edge of, or in, trouble all the time. Now he is in a ton of movies, seems trouble free, and I get a big kick out of his characters. If he didn’t steal the show in The Avengers, he was one of the real highlights in a film with many—if the box office means anything. And his character in the movie had to learn a big yes or no as well, which was along the lines of “do I say yes to my going-solo instincts, or do I join the team of super-heroes and avenge the bad guys?”

We can generalize to the rest of us all the lesson Downey needed to learn: to stop saying no to the life decisions that need a yes. Most of us are not in and out of court. But we have to say yes and no to life all the time. Saying no is important, but that is for the next blog. Today, let’s look at how our yeses, a smart set of them, can help us to fit into this imperfect world, the only one we have.

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The earlier versions of us have two choices when we react to the life we encounter as young people: we can accept the explanations for our experience as our own (adopt others’ thinking, as inadequate as it may be), or reject the explanations (and make up our own mind, as clueless as we may be). The first choice is to integrate and the second choice is to differentiate. We go through life bouncing between these two poles, thus creating who we are and what we do.

I have cited two universal examples in earlier writing—our choices of career and religious practice—that fit better than Downey’s choice of drugs or being on a team of super-heroes.

Integration

Absorb life as we find it and accept the explanation as to why.

(I am an accountant because I tested well in math, I can make money, and my parents thought it was a good, steady profession.)

(I am a Methodist because my family is Methodist, it seems complete as a spiritual approach, and I love my family.)

Differentiation

Reject the prevailing guidance and find another way, crafting or discovering a new explanation.

(I am an accountant because I love the profession, even though my mom and dad, both artists, thought I should be a jazz pianist.)

(I can’t settle on a religion to choose, and I love my parents’ Methodist authentic life.)

The reality is usually not as succinct as the above examples, and we spend much of our life in the gray area between choices, trying to sort out the influences we want to go with and those we want to swim against.

Hey over-differentiated ones: let me hear a yes or two

So this blog is for those of us who over-differentiate. We succeed in blocking out the social pressure, but in the process may have paid a big price. At the risk of parody, but to provide some examples, here is how it works: Being forced to get a degree, we dropped out. Or being groomed to take over the family business, we move to Fiji. Or being forced to have our dad’s Catholic faith, we join a cult. We may well have a soul, but too little impact on the world because we don’t have connection points. People refer to us as the black sheep. We read poetry on the beach, and may have beautifully developed hearts and minds, but we have not made enough commitments to a profession or a person or an institution.

We may have rejected the social pressure and stayed pure and spirited, but rendered ourselves ineffective and powerless. Or we got polluted high regularly, like Downey in the old days, and almost did not make it back to the mainstream.

With the over-differentiated, if I am in a position to provide some guidance, I might use questions like the following, depending on the particulars:

How would getting a job and keeping it give form to your purpose?

How might knowing more about economics and the world in general be of help? What would it mean to take out a mortgage?

What benefits for staying in a relationship or a career would come to you and others?

Robert Downey made it back and gave us the delightful Iron Man. For you, if you find yourself too much on the fringe of society, you may need to say yes to something that keeps you connected to the world. Your boyfriend, the next promotion, the insurance coverage even.

We will talk about why you need to say no next time. Make sure all your over-integrated, successful but soulless buddies read this next one. But for now, buck up and get integrated. Life is anything but perfect, and some of us are not made for this world, but almost all of us are. Give life a full shot first, before you start saying all the needed nos. Then your nos mean something.

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John Schuster is the author of The Power of Your Past.

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