The passive-aggressive present. This was the title of a post on a chat forum that I read recently. The writer of the post said that a few days before her birthday, her ex-husband had dropped off a present. She opened it. Inside was a pair of slippers.
The woman saw her ex-husband as abusive and passive aggressive. Therefore, a present from him would take on those qualities. So they sat there on the table, the discarded wrapping, the cardboard box and the pair of slippers, traumatising her.
The hardwiring for her was between her feelings of trauma, her ex husband and a present from him. The connection between the three was so strong, so unquestioned that the present was dangerous, a bomb ticking down the seconds until it ruined her life.
And the replies to her post all reinforced this. The readers all gave their own examples of passive aggressive and traumatising presents received from exes, former friends, critical mothers in law… They told her how justified she was to suffer in this way, how presents can traumatise.
But the truth is they can’t. And not only can presents not traumatise, neither can the exes, the former friends or the mothers in law who give the presents. This is such a huge idea and it goes counter to almost everything we see in the world around us. Indeed, it goes against beliefs that I have had my entire life.
I worked in marketing and PR for decades. I saw evidence daily of how an image, a slogan or a strap-line can change thoughts, feelings and behaviour. I have spent my life believing wholeheartedly in the power of the outside world to make people feel a certain way or to do something different.
I campaigned to ban Page 3 in The Sun newspaper on the grounds that topless photos in a national newspaper were demeaning to women. I protested against luxury brands using bruised and bloodied models arranged in a semi-conscious sprawl because they triviliased domestic violence. I was glad when a t-shirt with a picture of a noose and the words hang loose was recalled in the US on the basis that it promoted suicide and evoked lynchings.
Was I wrong in all of this? Is there really no power in an image of violence or of a symbol of hatred or a poster of a woman’s body? I find this so hard to believe. When I look at a swastika, it seems as though the connection between the image, the intention behind it, the history of its use by the Nazi party and the feeling it evokes in me is hard wired. It looks like those wires cannot be cut. It seems as though the feelings are the symbol. That they cannot be separated.
The truth though is that there is no intrinsic power in a symbol to make us think a certain way. There is no power in a circumstance. There is no power in another person. A slogan can never be offensive. A poster can never be insulting. A symbol can never be hateful. An ad campaign can never make me insecure or force me to buy something. Neither a present nor an ex-husband can be passive aggressive. Because all of it is experienced through the medium of thought.
How does this work though when it seems so obvious that there are outside influences with power to change us?
1. Something only has the power to affect our feelings if we think it does.
An image or object or other person is only powerful because the perceiver is powerful. The perceiver is powerful because he or she can take thought and use it to create an entire mind and body experience of that thought. Through our creative power of thought we can live out an entire ten part drama, a feature length film with prequel and sequel. It is never the object that creates that experience. It cannot create an experience. It is only ever what the perceiver is making it mean.
In other words a picture says a thousand nothings. Without the role of the perceiver there is nothing in the picture, the symbol, the object, the situation. It is neutral. Meaningless. It is only ever what the perceiver perceives it to be. And when the perceiver realises this the power transfers from the object (where it was only ever imagined to be and never really was) into the perceiver.
2. When we use our feelings as a guide, our lives are dictated by conscious and unconscious thought.
What about our unconscious hard-wiring? What about priming? Studies have shown that when we hold a warm drink we feel more warmth towards another person. When we wear a lab coat we pay more attention to detail. Surely we can’t escape the influences of which we are unaware?
What is so revolutionary about the understanding that we experience our lives from the inside out is that it cuts through both the conscious and subconscious. When we know that our feelings come from thought which changes all the time, then we give our feelings far less significance. In other words what I am feeling about another person or a job or a present or a situation is irrelevant. It is no guide for my life.
Instead we come from what makes sense to me in the moment regardless of what I am feeling.
3. What we think about the intention of the person behind the present or symbol or campaign is also just thought
But surely sometimes the intention of the person is so crystal clear that it imbues the object with the power to cause fear or concern or rejection. How about ‘GO HOME’ graffiti daubed on the door of an immigrant or posters of babies on placards outside an abortion clinic or the Westboro ‘God hates you’ placards at military funerals or a present given by an abusive ex. There is no doubt surely as to the meaning behind these letters and pictures.
Surely it is totally logical to be traumatised or angry or fearful.
It is logical and utterly understandable. Because we look to the outside world to explain our feelings. It is entirely human to do this. But it also keeps us trapped in a place of no freedom or truth.
Because what we are thinking and imagining and deducing about the intention of the person that has created these symbols is only ever up to us. We can hate them, have pity on them, see them as insignificant, misguided, insane, scared, insecure, dangerous, threatening. The role they play in our mind is everything to do with us, our state of mind at the time and never, ever anything to do with them.
4. What we see is selective
According to my state of mind I will either notice things and make them mean something or I won’t even see them.
Unaware of my own role in creating this reality, I allow myself to slip inside a vicious circle. In a low mood I look to the outside world to explain why I am feeling low. I see the symbols, images, objects and people that I believe are causing it. My mind stays low. I see more of the hateful stuff. I am trapped in a low reality of my own creation.
When I realise that what I notice is a function of the ever fluctuating energy of mind and that nothing in the outside world has the power to make me feel a certain way. Then the hardwiring is cut. The circle grinds to a halt. I stay strong and clear and curious in the knowledge of my own creative power. I create a new, fresh, more truthful and more expansive reality
5. Seeing this gives us the freedom and understanding to be the change in the world
The freedom lies in understanding that we can live our lives from the only real place available – from inside, from what we know to do, from a place of well-being, clarity and natural resilience.
We don’t need the world to change for us to be OK. Symbols and objects and campaigns and other people cannot demean us or traumatise us. As more of us realise this, we start living a more truthful, more naturally powerful existence. As a result we become a beacon for strength, clarity, purpose and love that rises high above the misunderstandings and confusions.
There is enormous, incalculable freedom in this. As we stop reacting to stuff as though it has power, it quietly slips out of our world. When we stop believing in passive aggressive presents, we stop receiving them, the people we hang out with stop receiving them, gradually the world stops receiving them.
‘Nothing is as powerful’ said Victor Hugo, ‘As an idea whose time has come’.
And the time for this idea is right now.