Edna’s son, Bobby, is 14. He’s not a bad kid by any stretch of the imagination. He’s never been in trouble in school or with the law. He is kind and polite to others. He is unusually honest and trustworthy for a boy his age, but there is one part of Bobby’s behavior that has Edna completely out of sorts and sitting on my couch. Bobby is an underachiever. He’s not failing any of his classes, nor has he ever. It’s clear, however, that Bobby is uninspired by academic life and skates by doing as little as possible. Edna, God bless her, has her sights on much loftier careers for her son than Bobby seems to be aiming towards himself. Edna has hired tutors and psychologists. She has tried lecturing, guilt-tripping, and privilege-removing. In a weak moment of desperation, she has even had Bobby’s palm read to get the inside scoop on his future. So what’s the harm in Edna’s efforts? Probably nothing with a horrible or permanent outcome. But the problem is this--despite Bobby’s periodic half-hearted attempts to appease his mother, he is still underachieving.
Randy’s wife, Jenny, is obese. He didn’t marry her that way so he’d like to trade her in for the slim woman he married, and he is committed to doing whatever he can to make that happen. His den, for instance, is now a miniature health spa. Although Randy works out regularly, he does so at a local gym. The home machines are all for Jenny, as are the health magazines on the coffee table and the diets hanging on the refrigerator. Jenny has calorie counters, carbohydrate counters, pedometers, and a super scale that measures weight, percentage of body fat and even sings Happy Birthday. Often Jenny’s conversations begin like this: “Remember that girl, Jackie, from the smoothie place, well, she has a friend who lost 65 pounds by . . .” It’s been three-and-a-half years since Randy began his campaign to stamp out cellulite in his marriage. He has fought the good fight with fervor and consistency. And, God bless him, Jennifer is heavier than ever.
Jane has never understood David’s drinking. She says she’s been drunk only once--in college, and the hangover convinced her never to do that again. David, on the other hand, has an altogether different relationship with alcohol. He drinks at weddings, funerals and all days in between. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t mind attending church services as long as they use real wine for the sacraments. David’s drinking is a problem—but, not to him. He has no DUI’s, no arrests for drunk and disorderly, and no absence or tardiness at work. There is nothing drinking has cost him in his life except the approval, respect and connection with Jane. But Jane, God bless her, is hurt much more by these losses than David is. He doesn’t seem to care about those things nearly as much as she does. Jane works at getting Dave to stop drinking by lecturing him about the long-term negative effects, reading selected Bible passages hoping to put the fear of God in him, and giving him AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) literature. She also tells him how she worries when he’s behind the wheel of a car, hoping that if fear doesn’t get him, guilt will. And, yes, David is still drinking.
For all of you Edna’s, Randy’s, and Jane’s out there, take heart. There is hope. The hope is for you, not necessarily for the Bobby’s, Jenny’s, or David’s of the world although any or all of them may make changes along the way. We don’t know that.
We do know this. Anytime you are working harder on another person’s life than they are, two things are true: 1) You are out of bounds, and 2) The other person is not getting anywhere. I learned this the hard way in doing countless hours of psychotherapy. People can change considerably when they invest their energies in changing. When I do but they don’t, I am left feeling drained, frustrated, and completely powerless . . . just like Edna, Randy, and Jane.
God bless them.