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Why We Play Small

The role of resistance in following our callings.

An acquaintance of mine, Ron Jones, once told me a story about his father, who was a musician at heart, but worked for 35 years selling furniture in a department store in San Francisco—televisions, refrigerators, glassware. One day he was told the store was closing. In those days there was no golden parachute or retirement benefits, and when they asked him if there was anything they could do for him, his only request was to have the chair he’d been sitting in all those years. They sold it to him.

“He brought that chair to my house on his back one day,” Ron said, “and placed it in my living room and told me about all the years he sat in it, and then he made me promise that I would never sit down in that chair, ever. It’s in my living room to this day, and I never sit in it. I just tell the story, and the lesson my father passed on to me through it: Don’t sit down in life. All through your life you’re going to be asked to sit down, to conform, comply and compromise, and it can be very deadly if you get in the habit of doing that. Be leery of the price of conformity, my father told me. Stand up, create things, do things.”

This story reminds me of two friends of mine who are very tall, and tend to stand with a slight stoop, a slump at the shoulders, as if they’re constantly trying to fit under low door jambs. Both men have, at different times, told me the same thing about being very tall: They’re afraid to stand up completely straight for fear of intimidating people with how big they really are. And it reminds me of an oft-cited quote from the author Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we’re inadequate, Our deepest fear is that we’re powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. But our playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

Which begs the question of what would happen if you suddenly realized you’ve been sitting down when you could be standing up, and how those around you might react. Because whatever position you’ve settled into is the one others have gotten used to, and they’re likely to feel unhinged when you change positions, question authority, disregard conventions, or strike out on your own.

What would happen if a martyr stopped making sacrifices? If a pleaser stopped pleasing, a true-blue friend changed color, a whisperer suddenly shouted, a screamer suddenly whispered? What would happen if whatever it is in you that others have come to rely on changed?

For that matter, you yourself may not take so kindly to your own power. Although fearing power is a bit like fearing wealth—it’s a little hard to get sympathy for—power does have its dangers. For one thing, taking on your power can shatter your perception of your own limitations, and without those perceived limitations—not enough time or money or talent, a bad back, too many other responsibilities, someone standing in your way—there are no longer any reasons to hold yourself back. And that’s moth-to-the-flame stuff.

Say you believe, for instance, that you can’t follow a call to teach classes in your area of expertise because no one will be interested, but you follow the prompting anyway and the first class fills up. Now you’re going to have to wonder what other limiting beliefs you might need to update. Perhaps these include a belief that you’re not good enough to teach, or there’s no money in it, or it’s only a matter of time before you’re exposed as a fraud. As your excuses begin falling away, you begin taking the risks you’d always thought of as terrifying. Your life isn’t so predictable anymore, and you start to find out who you really are, which is always a bit of an acquired taste

The psychologist Abraham Maslow talked about what he called the Jonah complex: “The evasion of one’s own growth, the setting of low levels of aspiration, the fear of doing what one is capable of doing, voluntary self crippling, pseudo stupidity, mock humility.“

No matter how sophisticated or ingenious your avoidance, he said, it’s still a cheap adaptation to the implorings of personal evolution, and reminiscent of a dire old joke about two clerics who were the first to witness the return of the Messiah. When the younger one frantically asks, “What should we do?" the older one tells him, “Look busy.“

The guilt of Jonah, says Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation, “was that he clung to the trivial, and tried to cultivate only his own little garden.“

If it’s any consolation, so does almost everybody when confronted by a calling, at least initially. Everybody, to some extent, backs away from their authenticity, settles for less, and hobbles their own power. Everybody occasionally ignores the promptings of the soul and then the discontent that ensues, trying to distract themselves by counting their blessings, all the reasons they should be happy with their lot in life, content with things as they are, things that may once have been be-alls and end-alls but lost their intoxication after five years, put them on automatic pilot after ten, and became a prison after fifteen. There’s a reason the mythologist Joseph Campbell identified the first two stages of the hero’s journey as 1) receiving the call, and 2) refusing it.

We all have a part of us that simply fears change and reacts to it with a reflexive flinch, the way snails recoil at the touch and birds bolt for the sky. And a calling is a messenger of change, a bell the tolls for thee, and it brings on the fear that frightens away sleep. There’s no guarantee that change will be a change for the better.

Resistance is not only universal but instinctive. It may be contrary to the open-mindedness and resilience you’d prefer and that seem so necessary to getting through life with a measure of grace if not power and purpose, but it’s still involuntary, and our brains are wired for it. We’ve spent far more of our developmental time here on planet Earth focusing on danger rather than pleasure, for obvious evolutionary reasons.

In fact, I used to have an old daguerreotype map on the wall in my office that showed a picture of the world as it was conceived during what was called the Age of Discovery, roughly the 1500’s and 1600’s. And at the edges of the old maps, the cartographers used to draw dragons and monsters, and just offshore ships whose masts were entangled with the tentacles of giant squid. And I had that map on my office wall to remind me that I’m not a coward for being afraid of the unknown. Fear of what lies outside the light of the campfire, no less the village, is a very ancient anxiety.

Given, too, that we invest years, decades even, in our own status quos, we’re naturally loathe to part ways with them, and the harder-won the status quo, the less inclined we’ll be to let it go. Most of us are conservatives that way. We want to conserve the status quo. We’re simply trying to protect our investments: the skills we spent years honing, the relationships we’ve stuck by, the things we believe about ourselves, whether they’re true or false. Our worst fear is that our notion of who and what we are might tip over into anarchy. And one of the great difficulties in following a call is that it may feel utterly and hopelessly at odds with whatever we’re trying to conserve.

A calling may also make you wonder if you’re good enough, smart enough, disciplined enough, educated enough, patient enough, and inspired enough. And you’re especially likely to question yourself if you believe your calls to have been sent directly from God, because then the pressure mounts. If you’re afraid of failing, you’re afraid of failing not just in your own eyes but also in God’s. Historically, the reaction typically elicited in those who were chosen for a divine calling wasn’t pride and shouts of hurrah but fear and humility.

Many people, hoping to avoid the anxiety of saying yes to their callings and the guilt of saying no, settle for a maybe. “It is vital,“ Eric Maisel writes in Fearless Creating, “that you clearly hear this deadly silent no. This damned seven-eights no that can steal decades from your life.“ In order to say yes, he insists, you must first say no more forthrightly, must know precisely where you stand. “Better to be frankly disappointed in yourself that the no is so loud than to be bitterly disappointed in yourself after decades of secret no-saying. Let yourself have the no. Learn to hear it. Learn to say it. Hate it, but hear it.“

And remember, resistance is also a good omen. It means you’re close to something important, something vital for your soul’s work here, something worthy of you. If a path feel safe, it’s probably not the right path, but if it scares you, it probably is. And the degree of resistance you have is probably proportionate to the amount of power waiting to be unleashed once the no breaks through a yes and the call is followed.

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