Life Lived in the Active Voice
By Joel F. Wade - June 06, 2012

If you are a writer and you want to write boring passages that are meaningless to your readers, the best way to go about this is to write in the passive voice: sentences with no clear actor, actions with ambiguous authors. "The car ran off the road." "The food was prepared." "The letter was written."

Contrast this with the active voice: "John swerved and ran the car into a ditch." "The chef prepared the sumptuous food." "Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to John Adams."

The active voice is much more compelling and interesting. It draws the reader into the narrative and makes the unfolding of events more interesting.

This technique of storytelling is analogous to a choice that you have to actually live your life through the passive or the active voice. What you choose can have an effect on your experience similar to the effect a well-told story can have on a reader.

One of the characteristics of criminals is that they often speak of their actions in the passive voice: "The knife went in" versus "I stabbed him." This reflects a disconnection on the part of the criminal from responsibility for his despicable actions. It provides and reflects the emotional distance that allows him to perform his evil deeds.

We do the same thing in other, less troubling situations when we don't take responsibility for our actions. When we speak of or think about our actions in the passive voice, we deprive ourselves of much-needed feedback.

The pain of shame or regret or disappointment in ourselves can be truly awful, and it is something that anyone naturally wants to avoid. But it is those feelings that tell us that something is wrong, that we have done something that we need to look at, to reconsider and to learn from. The feelings of shame, regret and disappointment with ourselves are the emotions that allow us the opportunity for moral redemption.

If we disconnect from those painful feelings we deprive ourselves of the vital messages we need in order to take full ownership of our actions, to grow into better people and to integrate ourselves more fully with the values of a life well lived.

There's a big difference in terms of the emotional hit that you feel between saying, "I spent a lot of money on things I shouldn't have and now I'm broke," and "The money's just gone." The first acknowledges what you've done and suggests a course of action to remedy your situation; the latter leaves you as a passive victim of a mysterious process.

This is not, on the face of it, a psychopathology, or even a weakness; it is really an element of human nature. In many ways referring in the passive voice to the actions you've taken or not taken, about which you feel regret, is an ego-protection strategy. It is an understandable and natural course to take; but it is not the course that will allow you to learn and grow from your mistakes.

I have never known anybody who has avoided the tendency to rationalize away responsibility completely. I have known many who strive, with sometimes-heroic effort, to face their actions with as much honesty and candor as possible. I have known many who fall too easily into the passive voice, and suffer repeatedly for it.

When I reflect on all of the many clients I have worked with over the years, friends who have confided in me and my own personal struggles this one quality – adopting the active versus passive voice – stands out as central to a life well lived.

Living life through the active voice is fundamental to self-ownership. It is an expression of self-responsibility and it makes it possible for you to acknowledge and accept what you have done so that you can do things differently next time.

Sometimes a husband or wife with whom I am working will tell me of an affair that they had, or are having, and they will say something like, "It just happened."

But that's not really true, is it? For an affair to "just happen," both parties have to on some level want it to happen, they both have to be willing to either accept the consequences of their actions or assume a degree of unconsciousness with respect to their actions. Maybe feeling that "It just happened" is part of the excitement, the sense of being caught up in forces beyond their control. But then there are the consequences; and one way or another those consequences will have to be dealt with.

Or they may have decided to pretend that there will be no consequences, which is a pretty blatant lie that they must tell themselves.

If something harmful "just happens" then there is nothing to be done about it but feel sad for your misfortune for having had such unfortunate luck. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, like being in a dangerous spot during an earthquake or getting caught in unexpected traffic.

Sometimes bad things do "just happen." We are, none of us, all-powerful. You can be fully responsible for your own actions, yet you are still part of the world and can suffer consequences not of your own making.

When you look for what your role has been in your misfortune, however, you orient toward what you can do about it now. It is crucial to accept the circumstances that may have set the stage for your misfortune – the political and economic disaster that others in power have brought about, for example.

But once you separate out what is not in your control or of your own doing, then by accepting the pain and anguish of facing what is your personal responsibility for your predicament you take the first, crucial steps toward empowering yourself.

Moral redemption is one of the great, heroic opportunities in this life. We are blessed with the possibility to remake ourselves: to choose poorly, suffer the consequences of our actions and then learn from our mistakes – and grow into stronger, better people for it.

But this is not something that ever "just happens." Living your life in the active voice, fully owning your actions – and their consequences – is the sometimes-painful blessing of a fully human, heroic and morally fulfilling existence. Such a deliberate stance is essential to a life well lived.

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