For many years, others described me as “driven.” They typically intended it as high praise, and at the time I took it as such.
After all, isn’t it wonderful to strive for excellence, to persevere through repeated obstacles, and to find a way to keep coming out on top? Not necessarily – especially if it’s at the expense of the people I care about, not to mention my own dignity as a beloved child of God.
Desire and “drivenness” seem so similar, but they are radically different. Desire attracts us, allures us, draws us. It doesn’t drive us. Ultimately, all of our desires (even our disordered ones) are beautiful gifts from God. He never coerces. He always honors our dignity and freedom.
If we are “driven,” the real question becomes, by whom or by what? Where is that feeling of pressure or high expectation or coercion coming from?
In my case, there can be a felt sense of urgency: I have to, or else…
Or else what?
For years, I don’t think I slowed down enough to ponder what the “or else” even was. I was too driven, and sometimes still am. I can easily shift into a dogged determination, in which failure is not an option. When I do, if a person or situation suddenly stands in my way, my normally “calm” outward demeanor flashes with irritation, peevishness, or frustration – often surprising myself and others. Where did that burst of anger come from, that overreaction?
Now I understand a bit better. In mere milliseconds, my body mobilizes: first feeling shame; then feeling fear of exposure or abandonment; then feeling contempt toward the person perceived as a threat; then weaponizing that contempt; and finally, an eruption of anger, manipulation, or shaming behavior. All this happens in an instant – before my thinking brain has even realized that a reaction is happening.
I can’t stop such reactions from happening altogether, but I can notice and be curious and reflect. Kindness and childlike curiosity go so much further than self-contempt and a push into even more drivenness. My curiosity might go something like this: Huh – that’s interesting. I really reacted just now. What’s my body feeling at the moment? What is the intense warning trying to tell me? How old do I feel right now? When was the last time I felt like this?
I can listen to my anger, my fear, and my shame. Then I can start to notice what the “or else” is saying – even if it is irrational in the current situation. I’ve noticed in myself a fear of failing or of being exposed as not good enough. I notice a fear that others will leave me unprotected or all alone to navigate the hardest moments of life. As long as I somehow keep performing at an impossibly high level, maybe they’ll stick with me. Over time, this drivenness gets exhausting. It is not sustainable, and it definitely does not yield joy!
Hear me correctly – I’m not condemning being “driven.” It is one of the ways we human beings survive awful situations. Shame and fear are powerful motivators. They may even help us begin a journey of repentance. But only desire can abide, grow, and bear fruit. Fear and shame will never help us to have healthy, happy, and holy relationships. Fear of the Lord may be the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), but “perfect love drives out all fear” (1 John 4:18).
I’ve written before about Augustine of Hippo and his distinction between ducere and trahere. Appealing to John 6, he describes the way in which God the Father allures and attracts us (trahere) by means of our desires. He doesn’t demand or coerce like an earthly authority tends to do (ducere – from which words like “duke” derive). We are created for communion and love, and God desires us to desire him. He allures us without coercing, without “driving.”
This is a tricky matter, because outwardly, two different human beings can be doing exactly the same thing for quite different reasons. One is driven by fear and shame, while the other is motivated from within by desire and love. One is avoiding the pain of unhealed wounds and running away from the Cross; the other has experienced dying and rising with Jesus and is bringing an unshakable confidence into a broken world. For example, two different Christians passionately evangelize. One is terrified of hell and is driven to keep all others out of hell. The other has been transformed by an encounter with the risen Jesus and desires everyone else to encounter the risen Jesus in their own ways. Two pro-lifers engage in advocacy. One is driven to keep the right people in political power and views pro-choice advocates with total contempt. The other cares passionately about the dignity of unborn humans – as well as about the dignity of the mother, and of all human beings, including those she most disagrees with. She treats all of them with honor and respect.
This is where spiritual discernment comes in. Catholics have a tendency only to use that word only in asking massive questions such as, “Am I called to become a priest?” We don’t always realize that God intends discernment to be a daily practice for us. We can notice what he is doing and engage in a response of love throughout the day.
Like a lover wooing his beloved, God is always stirring up desires in our heart. We have the freedom to grow in those desires and bear fruit. Unfortunately, our deepest and most intense desires are often buried beneath our fear and shame. That actually makes sense! The evil one HATES our God-given desires, and wars against them early and often.
The only way to uncover our deepest desires is to welcome the healing and transformation that Jesus brings. And the only way to experience that is (~gasp~) to die and rise with him. Can you see why so many of us prefer to be “driven” by fear and shame?
Are you “driven”? If so, are you ready for a change?