Sunday, June 6, 2010


My wife found it amusing when, a number of years ago, I took on the assignment of becoming a disciple-like practitioner of “the non-anxious presence.” Her amusement was twofold: One, because I learned about it in a book* while she, it turns out, was one of those naturally non-anxious people all along, and; two, I am decidedly not a naturally non-anxious person so let’s just say that I continue to struggle with the concept.

If you will allow me to invent a statistic: About fifty per-cent of people are naturally non-anxious, and the other fifty per-cent of us are not. (And it seems that the two types often marry each other!)

Our kids think it was a good thing that they had at least one non-anxious presence in their childhood home. If asked, they will agree that they never heard their mother raise her voice to them…  ever… not once. Caryl says this is not so surprising, as she never heard her father raise his voice. And he was no wimp; he was a strong, self-reliant, successful farmer. He was just a non-anxious guy.

Me? Some of us, the book says, can learn to be non-anxious, and I’m still trying.

I’m a big proponent of talking things out. I used to demand -- in the middle of a conflict with one of our daughters – that we needed to discuss this right now (when she just wanted to escape to her bedroom). Caryl would calmly say, “Give her some time…, she needs some time.” And of course she was right. (And so did I -- need time, that is. One of the lessons of becoming a N.A.P is to wait until heads have cooled before discussing an issue.)

Although I confess that I’m still a student of N.A.P., I also need to say that what I have learned of it has changed my life. As Edwin Friedman says, “In a situation of anxiety, no real communication happens and no conflict gets resolved.” And in terms of parent-child relationships, someone needs to be the non-anxious one; it had best be the parent.

I’m thinking about this because President Obama is being criticized for “not being angry enough” about the oil spill. But I don’t think that’s an accurate assessment. I know his kind -- I’m married to one: He’s one of those naturally non-anxious types. As with my wife and my father-in-law this is not an indication of softness but rather of an inner strength. (Of course I realize that politics also come into play here, something I’ll happily take on in another post, but it’s not my intention to explore the politics of the matter right now.) After a life-time with my steely-soft non-anxious wife, and learning how to be a parent to two remarkable kids, and some real-life schooling in communication and conflict-resolution, I’ve finally concluded that the best way to express anger is to say, “I’m angry.” Non-anxiously.

*Generation To Generation, by Edwin Friedman, is a classic in the field of family systems theory. The first half of the book is a very helpful primer and introduction to the concepts of family systems. (The "non-anxious presence" is just one of the ideas that I was introduced to through this wonderful book.)


Anna said...

I think it's a bit funny that you wrote this, as I feel like I've heard you say you want to become a non-anxious person for most of my life. Having yet to succeed, you also raised your daughters to be 'anxious' presences (Though Beret is admittedly calmer than I). Where does that all work in?

I would also like to note though that while mom never raised her voice, the fear with which she could instill when not raising her voice was exponentially greater than when you were shouting (sorry mom). There's something to be said for ruling non-anxiously in a Machianvellian way.

Anonymous said...

Here's some words of wisdom for you, my dear: If you stick with me long enough you too will become a N.A.P.

On a more serious note, thanks for the words about Dad, he was the epitome of a non-anxious person, and how fortunate for us that he was in our lives.

Thanks for learning to give me (and the girls) space and time when it was needed.