Who You Really Are = What You Do Under Pressure

April 8, 2010 — Leave A Comment

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?

Michael Warden

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