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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.
Blogs about inhabiting this present moment

Complacency, Apathy and Resignation Be Banished and Transformed

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. Updated: May 10th 2012

Awakening to Reality Won't Tolerate Anything Less Than Truth, Vision & Action

"Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

"You could stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won't back down."
—Tom Petty, song "I Won't Back Down"

blue and black swirlHow come we hate ourselves so much? This is the question the Dalai Lama asks of Americans and finds no answer. We treat complete strangers far better than we treat our spouses and immediate family members. I guess that's an indicator, along with irritation, anger and outright hate, that we do feel something strongly toward our closest loved ones, which could be seen as cause for some sort of acknowledgment if not celebration. While love has no opposite given it is in the Absolute realm and only can be said to have an absence when not evident, perhaps the closest we come is complacency, apathy and resignation, like we simply don't care and have given up feeling anything. This isn't equanimity, but outright defeat, self-hatred and giving up on humanity, the universe, God and ourselves. Or is it the harbinger and possibility of the iciest cold just preceding a new transformative dawn?

An opening disclaimer: As much as I've repeatedly seen complacency, apathy and resignation throughout my almost six decades of life and over three decades doing clinical psychology in private practice, the experience of complacency, apathy and resignation is completely foreign to me. Perhaps it's my personality, values or key principles that disallow these cognitive-emotional states. A close friend tells me of my "ebullient personality" being "forcefully affirmative" and "spark for life." Could these be telltale clues? Somewhere around 11th grade, approximately age 16 to 17, it came to my awareness that a defining value in my life was being attentive to the cutting edge of growth and development, discovery and evolution, as a living being in this empirical world. With an understandable naïveté given my age, I assumed everyone brought this same rock-solid commitment in action to grow. Then I started to check this assumption out with everyone I was in contact with, including my family members, friends, teachers and fellow students. When I found not a one on this wavelength, to say I was shocked and stunned would be an understatement. To be best of my recollection I was mortified, stupefied and horrified. In fact, I started to seriously wonder whether I was an alien visiting this planet.

At about the same age I was reading Henry David Thoreau's Walden until I hit the page with the line, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation." It was like I was hit with a bolt of lightning. I still remember the eerie, otherworldly feeling that compelled me to read the same line over and over. I put the book down and could not continue, and I never have picked it up again, although I had enjoyed what I had read. What so struck me was the absolute riveting, obvious and undeniable truth of it all. I felt doomed and depressed, and then I became increasingly disturbed, irritated and quite angry. In fact I did a bang-up job in literally angering myself.

There and then somewhere inside of me it became crystal clear that the very last thing I'd ever be under any circumstances would be quiet about feeling desperate. I'd scream, "Holy murder!!" at the top of my lungs before I would succumb quietly to desperation and the grave. Singer songwriter Tom Petty said it best regarding this prospect in penning the line, "You could stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won't back down." Until I researched the Thoreau quote again for this writing I had not remembered the second half of the line. The complete line is "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." Somehow I had never seen or read it to ever have it get into immediate or short-term memory, so it stood no change to get into long-term storage. It's rather sweet to discover how my life since this moment has been an expression and embodiment of the song within me.

I distinctly remember to this day vowing in that moment that not only would I not be quiet in facing desperation, but that I would refuse to go down with the human ship of state, not become simply more human compost for recycling, and I would create "a life worth living." I have no idea where any of this came from, then or now. All I know is that this is one of the four or five pivotal turning points of my life and has made all the difference to the quality of this life. If this singular line Thoreau wrote isn't the most frightening line in all American literature, then I have no idea what it would be. It gets my vote.

From the vantage point and distance of a few years since then, it has become self-evident that I had missed a critical component in understanding my fellow human beings-complacency, apathy and resignation. How could I have missed what was so obvious? The equally obvious answer was that these qualities were lacking or missing or blocked inside of me, so how could I "stand under" and comprehend such cognitive-emotional states if they were alien to me? A quote that has only become deeper and more profound over time is by a Second century A.D. Greek slave Terence that was brought to Rome, freed and became a playwright of the Roman Republic: "I am a man; nothing human is alien to me." To this wise point, I have come to empathize or "feel with" my fellow human brothers and sisters in their complacency, apathy and resignation, and make sense of what heretofore has been in my blind spot.

On this journey I've come to appreciate how what is termed "learned helplessness", or giving up and acting in a passive helpless way given the perception of having no control of the outcomes or contingencies, along with survival decisions in the face of perceived trauma that are non-adaptive today, play such critical roles in the development of complacency, apathy and resignation. It's all seems about the meanings our mind attribute to the perception of dashed hopes, dreams and visions. Some people have experienced such pain, hurt, anger, disappointment, discouragement and despair, that they simply want no more. They are cooked, done and off the stove, and there is no telling if the pot will ever return to the stovetop or whether the fire in the belly of the stove still exists or is available and accessible. It is all so very human, understandable and about par for the course or average for almost all us human beings in adjusting to the hard, cold realities of the world as we find it, not as we hoped or wanted it to be. Of course, what does the world know about any of this? Nothing.

All this reminds me of a joke: Question: "Are you ignorant, apathetic or ambivalent?" Answer: "I don't know, I don't care, one way or another." The ever-present opening and opportunity life affords is to admit you don't know so true knowing can blossom, to feel heartfelt caring when so many appear to not give a hoot out of their self-estrangement, low self-esteem and despair, and to clear a space of clarity to make the apparent choices that define the quality of your living experience in every moment.

If there was one lesson I undoubtedly learned from the entire travesty of 9/11 it was this: if you are not making internal movement and taking actions in the world today to move your dreams forward into realization and manifestation, then what in the blazes are you doing? There may not be a tomorrow, which in reality is only a concept and does not exist. There also may not be a next moment. In other words, if you are not making your dreams and visions real every single day in some fashion, then the hard-edged truth-tellers would say you are a damned fool! Hard strong words, but nothing rings truer. The opportunity is for complacency, apathy and resignation to be banished and transformed.

If there is absolutely nothing else that I've learned on my journey through life on this beautiful blue-green marble of a planet, it is this: It's not what you learn and gain that makes for a rewarding, fulfilling and contributing life, but what you "buy out of", grow through and relinquish. It is not a crime to have visited the dark realms of complacency, apathy and resignation, only to remain here. In fact, each experience in this realm serves as a clear warning that one's real life is elsewhere, that this is the ditch and cliff, and not the path. To gain an ever richer and more complete awareness of what has led you to this juncture and its on-going reenactment is priceless. To begin to identify and uproot the core false beliefs, survival decisions, roles, identities and stories attached to existing inside of complacency, apathy and resignation is the ground for its undoing, transformation and transcendence into living a new day, original sanity and the True Self.

The question I've asked lifelong is simply this: Does this path lead anywhere? Sad but true, most roads don't lead anywhere. It's like a statement I heard a long time ago-if you find a road with no obstacles, it probably doesn't lead anywhere. It has been my decided impression that we human beings give up far, far too easily, letting the transient vagaries of life circumstances unduly shake and scare us into abandoning our dreams, visions and lives as unworkable, not in the cards, and certainly not for us. We tend to believe and take too deeply to heart the prescriptive judgments of our parents, teachers and friends when they criticize, pooh-pooh and discount our dreams and visions for our lives, thereby letting other's "stinkin' thinkin'" strongly influence us to jettison our life's calling, dreams and visions. This singular phenomenon may be the saddest epitaph of the human species' journey on Earth. It need not be like this. Some spirited people with clear eyes strongly declare, "Don't let anyone steal your dreams!"

The lovely good news is that there are paths, actually pathless Being and Awareness itself, that open up our true lives. Those apparent byways that do lead somewhere uplifting, that are of service and evoke soul-fulfilling exaltation, also exist. Miraculously, each one of these cognitive-emotional states of complacency, apathy and resignation with accompanying behavior patterns can serve as a life-transforming springboard to a functional and satisfying experience of really being scintillatingly alive.

So while you can give compassion and loving kindness to the legions that briefly visit or dwell most of their lives in complacency, apathy and resignation, I say let all these states be banished and transformed, that is, seen and witnessed, released and surrendered, with as little energy as possible. Doing this naturally opens up presence and a sanity of the True Self or Original Nature to be unveiled.

Those who move civilization forward have seen beyond the artificial walls our imaginary ego-minds have constructed for our seeming protection and have shifted their perception to witness what is real in this moment. They tell the imaginary self, or who we think we are, to please care and protect us less, far less, thank you very much! It's not needed or necessary, and only creates muddled confusion, unworkable behavior patterns, undue grief and untold suffering. Rather, they invite and usher the fictive ego-mind into the playground and pasture to freely roam and no more damage. Free the ego, and you are free! In truth, each empowered soul that is fueled by being his or her own authority brings a dream or vision that is real for them in this present moment. A present vision acts as an unstoppable inspiration moment-by-moment in guiding you to uncover and discover ingenious ways to make the vision real and manifest, first within yourself, and then in every soul you are privileged to reach and touch and know.

Victor Hugo once observed, "No army is as powerful as an idea whose time has come." Similarly, there is nothing as powerful as anyone with a contributing vision of being in true service to our fellow human beings coupled with "coming from" speaking, acting and living inside this dream in this moment. This is precisely the atonement (at-one-ment) and communion with our Source that defines the quality of our life and is our gift back to Divinity given its gift of life itself. From living inside this shift in perception, complacency, apathy and resignation have no opportunity, space or oxygen to arise. Awakening to reality won't tolerate anything less than truth, vision and action. Those who are capable, willing, show up and truly engage in life do everything they can to manifest their deepest inner beckoning, dream and vision till their dying breath. You might well say, they simply don't know how not to. To listen, follow and honor their Muse, inner voice, and Truth has become not only second nature, rather it is now an authentic expression of their first Original Nature, who they truly are. What better serves the forward progress of humankind in realizing and embodying the evolutionary impulse of life itself? What better manifests this divine expression of life?

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician in private practice in Pleasanton, CA in the East San Francisco Bay area. Licensed as a psychologist in California since 1987 and in the field since 1976, he specializes in Presence-centered therapy principally with adults and couples. Presence-centered therapy is a conscious attuning to the richness of this present moment (sometimes called mindfulness or wakefulness) along with witnessing, that is, observing what the mind is up to now by looking from outside of it. His practice is centered upon inhabiting this present moment, witnessing and "buying out" of the ego-mind's unworkable patterns, desensitizing root emotional charges, and gaining effective tools to thrive in the world. He specializes in providing therapy for adults facing anxiety, significant stress, work issues, relationship challenges and depression as well as couples with marital issues, communication issues, self-defeating behavior, divorce mediation, co-parenting and pre-marital counseling. Core to his approach is installing, building and developing strong internal resources, an enhanced capacity to hold, bear and tolerate strong emotions, and highly adaptive tools to better thrive in the world.He can be reached directly through his website (featuring over 215 articles, 27 YouTube videos and pages upon pages of highly practical annotated resource links) or by email at . Dr. Friedman is available for business consulting, business training and executive coaching (detail on his home page).

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Wake Up Call Appreciated! - Barb Hildebrand - May 12th 2012

I read your article and could so identify with everything said.  I recall always having great passion for many things/causes and could never understand why others didn't feel this way.  Have done a fair bit of self development work over the years so was familiar with some of the quotes and authors you mentioned and it was only because of this self work that I became more aware and mindful.

I've heard the term "many are asleep at the wheel their entire life" and although I know it can be that way for some, it is just such a sad statement and I do my best to enlighten others that so much can be accomplished to live the lives we want and deserve, but it takes real work and continuous action to make it be so.  We don't have to blindly accept what life has thrown at us and allow it to take us out.

I think many are complacent, they've never had the influence or lessons to know it can be any other way, so maybe a kinder word would be "unaware".  Their own inner circle of friends and family so often dictate what they learn and take on, so if surrounded by others who also don't view the world with possibility and accept what life throws at them, it is not surprising they themselves learn to be complacent and accepting.

I think much more educating at younger ages needs to be done to explore the positive aspects and opportunities in our world.  To encourage our children that the sky truly is the limit, and even though they will run into huge challenges - knowing what they want the outcome to be and setting a plan in place and doing daily action, can and does result more often than not in achieving what you're after.

We need to encourage more critical thinking, to look for new and creative ways to get the message out that the lens through which we view life will always determine our outcomes.  Making people aware of how much control and power over our thoughts we all have if we choose to exercise that, changes so much.  Educating that this is possible needs to be shared on a very broad scale.  The old go to school, get good grades, continue on to college or university, get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house just isn't working and don't know that it ever did.  Teaching people they've got the power to truly have a say in their outcome needs to be taught so we don't all grow up not questioning what works or not in our lives. 

Not everyone is able to do this, there are sometimes mental health restrictions or other restrictions, but the vast majority if exposed to this message and way of thinking from an early age on,  I believe will have an entirely different life.  Really appreciated your well expressed kick in the butt, wake up reminder. 

Thanks! Barb



How does the transformation take place? - - May 10th 2012

How wonderful for you that “the experience of complacency, apathy and resignation is completely foreign to me”.  Since it is, I wonder a bit about your statement , “It is not a crime to have visited the dark realms of complacency, apathy and resignation, only to remain here.”

Sounds like blaming the victim to me.  What crime are those people committing?  What crimes has life committed against them that nobody knows about, either.  That nobody ever wanted to hear.  So the people don’t feel like they are a part of life. 

It would be nice (and possibly even helpful and revolutionary, who knows) if psychologists actually continued to try to come up with ways to reach those who seem “cooked, off the stove, and there is no telling if . . . the fire in the belly of the stove. . .still exists or is available and accessible” instead of blaming the people who are like that.  Sounds like you’ve given up on them, too, or else you’re yelling “Holy murder” about them instead of continuing to use your creative energy to try to find new ways to help them to become transformed.


Unfortunately, I don’t think just your words and exhortations can do it.  But perhaps I’m just cynical and discouraged. 


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