Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
June 2011 - Volume 11, No. 6
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The Third Act

.... and How to Get there

Classic drama has three acts. The first sets the stage, establishing the main characters, their relationships and the particular world in which they live. The second act involves wrestling out the struggles that emerge from the givens of act one. The final act brings resolution to the story and all its sub-plots as well. Interestingly this is the environment that I live in as a therapist.

Act One takes place before therapy begins. Each person has a particular and unique set of circumstances and heritage that often leads to a particular (usually personal) crisis, a turning point.

Act Two is where most of the important action takes place, which is why I use the words wrestling and struggle. It’s usually the most interesting part of the drama, where the skills of the writer or dramatist are most fully engaged, and the audience is fully captivated. Most of psychotherapy is Act Two work. It’s intense, difficult, and by its nature often involves the assistance of an outside source, guide, or mentor. There are no bargains or shortcuts here, just hard honest work.

In Act Three, there’s usually a second turning point, or a climax, where the main tensions of the story are finally resolved in a manner where the protagonist or main character(s) gain a new sense of who they really are. This is the outcome of therapy. This may take place after the conclusion of our actual work. Or it can mark those moments in therapy when it’s really working!

But what actually happens

For some the model is a simple problem solving structure. There’s a problem (Act One); we work out an appropriate solution (Act Two); and things are then free to move on in a more useful way (Act Three). This is the basic idea of “Counseling” - counsel or advice is given by the helper or professional, and then things are “fixed.” If you’re working with insurance ‘coverage’, you document it in psychological language, the insurance company will pay you for your effective efforts, and everybody’s happy.

But frequently there are some surprises along the way. When the ‘problem’ is anxiety, it’s assumed that the end result is an absence of anxiety. Then the ‘problem’ is depression, it’s assumed the end result will be an absence of depression. When the problem is difficulty in communication skills, the outcome should be an improvement and satisfaction in interpersonal relationships. But if you just focus on a ‘fix’ you’ll probably miss the more important transformations that are also present.

Act Two usually does more than just ‘fix’ the problems that emerged from Act One. A couple years ago a client returned after the death of her husband, a most happy relationship in which I had been involved many years earlier. Our work now involved her grief, depression, financial uncertainty, and a radical reorientation of step-family relationships. But just a few days ago, she sent me a note, including these words: “You may have made a dangerous woman out of me. I’m now doing what I want!”

Act Two has done its work well - she’s now in an Act Three that was unimaginable back in Act One.

Yes, I have a number of critics. Some spouses fault me because I didn’t “cage” their partners to maintain the status quo. Many (perhaps most) people are unhappy in Act One, but insist on staying there. Act Two is too scary, and Act Three is terrifying. Two alternatives are readily available: 1) make it illegal or 2) mute it with drugs. In our culture, we currently favor the latter.

I’ll comment that most people don’t have the courage to walk in my door. The fact that some do come means they’re willing to seek more than the ordinary. And I honor that.”

While discussing with one client her rigid religious upbringing, I realized that many churches will insist that Act Three isn’t supposed to be possible until after you die. And the operative replacement for Act Two is an ongoing ‘life’ of guilt and shame. That’s how many religious organizations become self-maintaining closed systems. The same is true of some political parties even in our own country. Self interest or organizational self-absorption effectively trump real ‘Life’ for the people.

The genius of “Eternal life” is not that we live forever in a future, but that “Life” has no boundaries. A Native American concept gives it a slightly different bent - “life lived to the fullest.”

If Act One is hope, and Act Two is struggle, then Act Three is Life, lived to the fullest. I personally don’t understand those who insist we can go to Act Three directly.[1] The end of a drama makes no true sense without the preceding promise and struggle. I don’t have an answer to those who question why it’s so much more difficult for some people than others. And if anyone does produce a quick and handy answer, don’t listen![2] But I do know their suffering; and I carry my own active hope of an eventual resolution for them.

No, getting to Act Three isn’t easy. But I will always place my bets on the full process, no shortcuts, no bargains, and no getting someone else to do it for you. Then Act Three will bring the gift of Life lived to the fullest.

An African proverb puts it this way: When Death comes knocking at your door, make sure it finds you fully alive.

May you, my intrepid readers, now be willing to engage the whole process - perhaps even understand it.

Pay attention.

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[1] The late Joseph Campbell told of a young coed coming up to him after a lecture saying “Dr. Campbell, isn’t it wonderful that we can now go directly from innocence to wisdom.” His perplexed response was, “But, but - then you’ve missed Life!”

[2] Here I recommend the late Sheldon Kopp’s little book If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients (1974). The saying is itself a Buddhist teaching, meaning that if you find someone with all the answers, run for your life (literally), because otherwise you’ll be giving away your soul.

Comments (3)

  • "The end of a drama makes no true sense without the preceding promise and struggle."

    Well said.

    — Ken M., 6/1/2011
  • Appreciate the analogy

    Hi Bill,
    Over the years, I’ve enjoyed performing in community theater. Most recently, I was Prudy Pingleton in Hairspray. My character had a transformation by Act 3. I chose to bring the moment to the climax by running through the audience toward the 1st row and then hoisting myself up on to the stage. At one point I looked at someone seated in the 1st row and said, “What are you looking at?” Prudy’s heart and views change, when she sees her daughter, Penny. Penny looks so beautiful and happy! She is living life to the fulliest. Her mother, Prudy (even though it’s not what she wants) accepts that Penny has found happiness. The rest of the characters and the audience get caught up in the moment as mother and daughter embrace. This was my favorite scene and it wouldn’t be possible without the struggles in Act 1 and Act 2.

    — Amy Herman, 6/1/2011
  • Shakespeare

    "All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players;
    They have their exits and their entrances,
    And one man in his time plays many parts,
    His acts being seven ages." ~ Jaques, “As You Like It”

    — Carol, 6/2/2011

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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