In one of his great poems, Robert Burns generously recognized wee Mousie, “earth-born companion, an’ fellow-mortal!” In another poem, he wrote (as rendered in modern English), “Oh would some Power the gift give us / to see ourselves as others see us!”
Yes, that would indeed provide us with enlightening and in many cases humbling and even shocking new perceptions of ourselves. For best transparency, however, we would still need to factor in the degree to which others see us subjectively, with their own biases and projections.
To become wise and free of inner conflict, we do need to see ourselves nakedly, in all our strengths and weaknesses. Yet psychological dynamics that are largely unconscious—such as resistance, denial, regression, defensiveness, egotism, and fear—block us from deeper insight. Seeing examples of our inner blindness can help us to understand and overcome the problem.
I have an example, a famous stage play, to show just how blind we are to our inner life and how little we know of unconscious forces at play in our psyche. This play, Waiting for Godot, is a classic example of how humankind is largely under the influence of inner passivity, which is a vitally significant aspect of our inner life that is largely hidden from our awareness. The protagonists (along with the villains) in many great plays, films, and novels are steeped in inner passivity, and Godot is perhaps the most flagrant example of it.
Inner passivity is a psychological weakness, a kind of software program in our psyche that limits our evolvement. It’s the poster child for self-sabotage, the coach potato of noble aspirations, and the missing link in really understanding human nature. This feature of our psyche represents the ways in which we’re still infantile, and it’s a major hindrance to moral, psychological, and social development.
Inner passivity steamrolls over us in Waiting for Godot, first produced in 1953. A poll by the British Royal National Theatre called it “the most significant English language play of the 20th Century.” Goodreads lists it number four in the top 100 stage plays. BuzzFeed lists it number 29 in “32 Plays You Have to Read Before You Die.” Entertainment Weekly listed it number seven in “50 Greatest Plays of the Past 100 Years.”
Waiting for Godot features two main characters, tramps in bowler hats who sit or stand by a tree on a country road, waiting impatiently for Godot, an unknown character who never shows up. From the start, with the first four words of the play, passivity leaps to the fore when the character Estragon says bleakly, as he struggles unsuccessfully to take off his boot, “Nothing to be done.” The other main character, Vladimir, immediately concurs. The dialog between them is endlessly morose, despairing, disjointed, confused, fatalistic, cynical, self-pitying, and defeatist. Waiting hopelessly with a vague expectation of being saved, they’re paralyzed with indecision, bewildered by misunderstandings, and plagued by suicidal impulses. Three secondary characters also reek of passivity.
My only interest in writing critically about the play is to discuss its unrecognized psychological dimensions. Waiting for Godot: A tragicomedy in two acts is the full title of the play, yet there’s little that’s tragic and nothing heartedly funny. What could possibly make it captivating?
The characters’ intense displays of helplessness, victimization, despair, and failure incite in members of the audience, in ways silent and subtle, their own struggles with inner weakness and self-doubt. The psyche’s path of least resistance leads through dark emotional resonance with the dregs of inner life. The tramps leave the indelible impression that they’re highly unlikely to ever see, or ever be willing to consider, what is required to overcome their passivity. Theater-goers unwittingly identify with the tramps’ passivity and their resistance to self-knowledge.
The play ends with Vladimir saying, “Well? Shall we go?” Estragon replies, “Yes, let’s go.” Then they stay paralyzed in place as the curtain falls. If anything, the play is a parody of inner passivity. Seen as parody and condensed into a five-minute Saturday Night Live skit, it might be good for a few laughs. When we don’t view the play with sufficient discernment, however, we allow it to exploit our psychological ignorance and emotional weakness, leaving an unpleasant emotional hangover.
Why is the play rated so highly? When skillfully performed, it’s dramatically captivating. We can easily reverberate emotionally with the plight of its pathetic characters. When viewing this play, theater-goers who are psychologically naïve become gawkers of human depravity. They’re co-conspirators in a hidden plot, conjured unconsciously by the playwright, to indulge vicariously in the spectacle of debased humanity. Schadenfreude descends creepily from playhouse rafters as members of the audience, naturally wanting pleasure from the play, can only titillate their libido in a perverse manner. The audience’s titters of laughter arise as relief in their apparent superiority and from smug glee in the misery of others.
The play’s cathartic or intrinsic value is minimal. As I see it, viewers of the play experience only two small consolations: “Thank God I don’t suffer like them!” and “Thank Heavens I haven’t sunk to that level of existence.” This perversity is more subtle than going to a cockfight and taking pleasure as the creatures tear each other apart—yet the psychological dynamics are comparable.
Some writers claim the play probes the human condition and requires us to face unpleasant truths as we stare into the abyss. Yes, the characters do stare into the abyss, and likely (to grant them a consciousness the play apparently denies them) they’re painfully aware of their frailty. Yet the dialogue is devoid of any glimmer of insight concerning that frailty and how it might be overcome. Suffering has no value or benefit unless it leads to self-development. Characters in a play don’t have to become heroes to give value to the performance. But what intrinsic value can a play (or film or novel) claim to possess when the protagonists fail to show some glint of growth, decency, or self-awareness? All that’s left is a cautionary tale of human folly that a newspaper report can provide in fewer words.
Some have called the play “theater of the absurd.” Yet reducing vital matters to absurdity is one of the passive defenses employed by our unconscious ego to thwart the inner critic. The defense reads: “I’m not willing to feel passive in the face of life’s challenges. Look, life is all absurd anyway. How can anyone be powerful in the face of all this absurdity!” Existentialist writers and Woody Allen’s films—with their themes of alienation, helplessness, confusion, indecision, and nothingness—have sustained this defense. This means these writers want their audiences and readers to “buy into” (or be fooled by) what serves as the writers’ own defenses and substandard means of coping, rather than to recognize deeper truth or value.
A literary work is a sublimation of a playwright or author’s inner life. The writing itself frequently serves unwittingly as a safety-valve for unconscious issues and conflicts. Some sublimations are better than others at disguising the writers’ underlying issues. In the process of sublimating, some writers fail to disguise the psychological warps and twists from which their art emerges. Sublimations that are well disguised can achieve higher creative purity, and they usually have a better chance of being genuine works of art.
Samuel Beckett, winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote the play, and I don’t want to rummage around in his psyche, except to say that his play would be, logically, the product of a clinically depressed person. Most people and most authors of literary work have to contend with inner conflict. Emotional weakness in the form of inner passivity is always an ingredient of inner conflict, and the playwright or author of literary work cannot entirely escape (like the rest of us going about our daily affairs) the self-limiting spinoffs of inner conflict.
To be generous, let’s consider that Waiting for Godot deserves comparison to George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. These prophetic novels portray the dangers of passive regression in human populations. Yet if Godot is intended to portray modern perils, its fatalism is too heavy-handed to merit our acclaim or even our attention. Its main value, when psychoanalyzed, is to show us how, through the critical acclaim bestowed upon it and the naiveté with which it is viewed, we resonate so profoundly and so unconsciously with inner passivity.
Inner passivity emerges from behind the scenes as an underlying theme in the drama, comedy, and melodrama of a large amount of literature. We tend to resonate emotionally with this passivity when we see or read expressions of it. Yet when we don’t see it clearly enough, with intellectual acuity, we acquire little or no conscious or unconscious benefit from plays, films, or books in which it festers as an undercurrent.
Inner passivity is baked into our psyche in a way that makes it difficult to detect. It feels innate. Like excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we can’t separate it out from what feels normal or natural. We fail to see inner passivity in the clinical sense, in the way, for instance, many people are conscious of its partner in crime, the inner critic. In our emotional life, we struggle—in feelings, thoughts, and behaviors—with the symptoms of this passivity, which include guilt, shame, regrets, bitterness, anger, incompetence, and depression.
When we’re more insightful, we can process our exposure to passive themes and passive people in ways that induce us to be stronger.
Like Estragon and Vladimir, are we now standing around in lurid self-doubt, faithlessly existing, initiating nothing, as our world teeters on the abyss? We appear to be in a state of psychological regression, meaning that we’re sliding backwards—being distracted, disengaged, and often cynical—unable to maintain healthy democracies, a vibrant planet, or to accept Nature on her terms.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by climate change, resource depletion, species extinction, terrorism, partisan hostility, mass shootings, collapsing infrastructure, a faltering health-care system, growing mental-health dysfunction, radical wealth disparity, violations of privacy, malicious misinformation, rapidly changing social norms, fears of being deposed economically, and an immigration fiasco. Overwhelmed by these challenges, lots of us are cowering in our shattered world like wee Mousie.
When we’re not passive, this global mess of ours is the stage on which we seek adventure and the expression of our worthiness and power. Psychologically and spiritually, everything is in place for us to become more conscious. We can now bring our passive side into focus, empowering our intelligence and spirit with this self-knowledge. Resistance will collapse as we wrestle rationality, truth, wisdom, and power from the conflicting forces churning in our awesome psyche.
Read Peter Michaelson’s The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourselves from Inner Passivity, available here.