Thursday, April 08, 2010

"Who You Really Are = What You Do Under Pressure"

This was the scene one morning in the skies circling my hotel in L.A. during my recent journey there to take the Story Course with Robert McKee. My first full day in that city had been rough for me--spiritually, emotionally, physically--and the night that followed fared no better. So the next morning I wrestled myself out of bed and took a stroll along the streets bordering my hotel to clear my head and ask God what the heck was going on. Not two seconds after voicing the prayer, I looked up and saw a red-tailed hawk soaring directly overhead with two crows hard on its case, alternately dive bombing the hawk as it circled the hotel. A voice in my spirit said calmly and with a hint of levity, "That's what's going on."

I continue to be surprised by how slow I can be at times on the uptake about such things. Even Abraham had to fight off the birds to protect the offering God had commanded him to bring. Why should I be so easily surprised by opposition or think of it as something out of the norm? We in the West have been taught that happiness is defined by the absence of such things--resistance, stress, opposition, pressure, suffering, attack. But McKee would argue that true fulfillment, true happiness, cannot exist apart from them.

The logic goes like this: A man longs to find his meaning & purpose in the world. To do that he needs to discover his own true heart--that is, he needs to know what he's made of,  who he really is deep inside, whether he is more noble or base...and thereby determine his true place in the world. The thing is, says McKee, the only way for him to find out who he really is deep inside is by being forced to make choices under extreme pressure. "You are what you do under pressure," says McKee, "and the greater the pressure, the truer the revelation of who you really are." All choices made or actions taken in life absent of this pressure are what McKee would call "characterization"--that is, the elaborate self portrait we each paint for the world and point to and say, "this is me." Only it's not the real you; it's a portrait you've created of who you think you are or want to be. Who you really are, however, can only be revealed through the choices you make and actions you take in the midst of difficulty and struggle. The greater the struggle, the truer the revelation of your true self. Suffering, pain, resistance, stress--all of these are essential to the process of true self-discovery, and therefore, are essential to true fulfillment and happiness.

Though I don't believe McKee is a Christ follower, I was struck by how closely his conclusions about the connection between suffering and fulfillment matched the Bible's view on the subject:
"We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, [proven] character; and [proven] character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." ~ Romans 5:3-5

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." ~ James 1:2-4

McKee's view of character formation & revelation leads to one sobering conclusion I am pondering at length these days: What you claim to believe in or follow or support from your place of comfort matters not at all. That's all characterization; it may or may not be true, but it certainly can't be trusted. It is only what you do, how you live, when the pressure is on, that truly counts. How will you know, then, if you truly believe in the things you claim to believe until you have suffered real pain and loss for their sake?

"Of what worth are convictions that bring not suffering? ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

What do you think? Do you agree with McKee's assertion that "you are what you do under pressure," or is there more to it than that?


Mike said...

Good word. It reminds me, though, that I still need a lot of work - a LOT. I do agree with McKee's assertion.

Mike said...

Well... I would add that pressure is one of the things that can reveal your true character. It is not the only thing, though. What you do when no one is looking (under pressure or not) is also an important thing to consider - as is how you treat those whom you do life with (at home, at work, ...), after the newness wears off.

Michael D. Warden said...

I've thought on the same thing, Mike, about other ways character is shaped or revealed. What you do in the absence of ALL pressure, for example (i.e. when no one is looking, etc.). Also, I wonder how revelation of character is connected to personal vision, dreams and opportunity. One proverb says, "The noble man makes noble plans"...could it be then that to some degree our character is revealed or tested by how noble and virtuous our dreams are for our lives?

Sara said...

I love what you're saying here. I'm not sure if I just love the adrenaline rush, but sometimes I would rather live with pressure than without. I love getting in that game-face zone where I know I'm only making it day-by-day with the strength of Christ. I love seeing that I am stronger than I think I am. Unfortunately, I think I have areas of character to grow, because I agree with what you guys are saying in the comments - with the lack of pressure, sometimes I have a hard time finding the gumption to push myself beyond comfortable boundaries.

Annette said...

What do you think? Do you agree with McKee's assertion that "you are what you do under pressure," or is there more to it than that?

In short, I disagree. I believe you find out "where your at" under pressure. To generalize "who you are" is to place one's self in an awful small box.

If someone spends the majority of their life giving love, self, and gratitude toward other's who cross their spiritual path (therefore, in Jesus's eyes; In God's eyes...a good Samaritin), does it mean that when they cave in a rough situation (i.e. emotionally or tangibly hurt by another)they are no longer that same "good Samaritin"? Which decides "who they are"?
Could "who they are" more appropriately be labeled by how they handle themselves AFTER a poor reaction? Do they grow? Learn? Ask forgiveness? they throw up their hands and proclaim; "Thats just who I am,"

Just some quick short

Michael D. Warden said...

Good point, Annette. McKee's position may be overlooking the work of divine grace and the capacity for change and growth in the aftermath of a high-pressure failure.

Still, I am drawn to the clarity of his idea. I am certainly less apt to believe someone's convictions are real until they have bled a little for them.

Jean said...

I enjoy reading your blogs.
I would like to add something to your blogs discussion about suffering and pressure. Here is my added perspective to this:

Sometimes God allows long term situations for a stronger refining process.
Long term pain, suffering, grief and loss or other means, will not only refine the character inside, but it squeezes to the surface wrong thought patterns and heart issues with God and others.

What we really believe about God will begin to surface as the months or years drag on with no change. We either choose in those seasons to believe solely what God's word says,and press into His face closer or suffer more.

The extra suffering and missed blessings come from staying in depression, discouragement, despair and the like. Long term pressures and suffering brings up the "dross" in our hearts like no other.

I certainly speak from long term experiences and will be blogging about them in near future.


Patti said...

"What do you think? Do you agree with McKee's assertion that "you are what you do under pressure," or is there more to it than that?"

I think it is more than that. It is every single moment of every single day, and every single circumstance (under pressure or without pressure) and what we do during and after, if we learned anything and what we do with what we learned that reveals who we truly are. There is also our inner voices, facing up to our inner voices, challenging our beliefs and knowledge also reveals who we truly are and our actions will reveal our inner convictions. I wonder if extreme pressure comes only to awaken us, to remind us we must continue to grow, to evolve, to look at who we truly are and acknowledge there is still something more to be learned and jump start the process.

Jessica said...

Really insightful... Happiness cannot be present without some negative elements intervening.