Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Washingtonian Complex

"What did you do for New Year's?" Amsterdammers ask this question with an expectation of wild stories dripping with champagne, basking in the glow of dazzlingly dangerous fireworks, squeezing through the crowds on the city squares... And indeed, most Amsterdammers (and most visitors to Amsterdam) can share such tales involving varying degrees of adventure.

But do you know what I did for New Year's Eve this year? I scarfed down a couple of olliebollen in between busy errands and quick conversations concluding a couple crazy days of conference. Then, around 11:30, I rode my bicycle home at a brisk pace, dodging bottle rockets as best I could, arriving home to a dark and quiet house. My dear, sweet wife was semi-conscious, in bed, suffering from the effects of a rampant flu bug; and my two children were sleeping peacefully, even through the rising din of snaps, crackles, and pops on the streets outside. As the stroke of midnight approached, I roused my son from a deep sleep, wrapped him up in a thick blanket, and carried him out to the sidewalk in front of our apartment where we gazed admiringly at the pyrotechnics on our street. But when the noisy explosions of a neighbors' fireworks shattered the sense of sleepy wonder in Elliot's eyes, we hurried back inside where it was safer, warmer, quieter, and we watched for a little bit longer. I gave Marci a peck on the cheek (no passionate smooching when influenza is involved) and tucked Elliot back into bed. Then I took care of some dirty dishes that had accumulated in the kitchen sink, and I was in bed by 12:30... Not much in the way of a classic New Year's adventure in Amsterdam. But there you have it.

The thing is... my New Year's Eve experience was not an isolated scenario. In fact, I feel that I often find myself in such situations -- seemingly on the outside, looking in at others having fun. And for whatever reason, the feeling has been especially pronounced over the last month or so... I'm doing dishes, while the dinner guests glory in each others' company... I'm folding laundry while the "important people" are having high-level strategic conversations... I'm working fourteen hour days while my best friends enjoy in-depth conversation with famous strangers... I'm "holding down the fort" so others can ride off to intrigue and adventure... And of course, I'm speaking with a sense of hyperbole and overstatement. But the truth is that I sometimes feel that my life simply serves as a frame for other people's masterpieces...

I can strongly identify with the character of George Bailey, from the classic film, "It's a Wonderful Life." Stuck in Bedford Falls, looking silly serving as a watchdog for air raids in middle America, while brother Harry pilots a fighter plane to glory and heroism in the War overseas... packing away the massive traveling case, while Sam Wainwright discovers wealth and notoreity on the East Coast... lending away every last penny saved for a fantastic world-wide honeymoon to keep the ol' Building & Loan running through dark days in Bedford Falls... Of course, George Bailey's life is a wonderful life -- but fact of the matter is that George Bailey's life often feels like stuffing dreams and desires to make way for others' needs. And honestly, that's the way that I feel sometimes.

At other times -- weaker moments -- my thought patterns put me more in alignment with the character of George Costanza, from the 1990s American situation comedy, "Seinfeld." Constantly plagued by a mild sense of paranoia, George was convinced that the world was against him. He was selfish, neurotic, and easily agitated. Short, overweight, balding, and cranky, George played a critical role in the television show -- often drawing huge laughs -- but the laughter were more often at his expense than to his credit. Clearly, Jerry and Elaine and Kramer all enjoyed having George as a friend -- as we all enjoy people like that in our lives -- but nobody would have wanted to be George Costanza. Because nobody wants to selfish, neurotic, easily agitated, or paranoid. But like it or not, I often find myself identifying with the character of George Costanza, just as I often find myself identifying with George Bailey.

It just seems like there is a certain pattern of person that persists throughout various periods of history, throughout various cultures -- a sort of personality archetype -- with which I easily empathize. Even from antiquity, I can identify with people who suffer from an overdeveloped sense of duty, control, and entrapment. The Bible describes Martha of Bethany in many ways that parallel my more modern comparisons. Luke 10:38-42 records how Martha hosted a reception for Jesus, in which she quickly became distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. In a moment of frustration, she tries to get her guest of honor to reprimand Mary (her sister) for leaving her to do all the work by herself. But instead, Jesus reprimands Martha saying, "My dear Martha, you are so upset over all these details! There is really only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it -- and I won't take it away from her." As I read such words, I can feel a crimson flush burning my own cheeks, as I share Martha's frustrations and shames...

I've come to realize that George Bailey, George Costanza, Martha of Bethany, and I all share a psychological condition designated as a "Washingtonian Complex."

Truthfully, this diagnosis involves the introduction of a new term to the vernacular of popular psychology (a rather precocious move for someone like me, who has never studied clinical psychology). But perhaps you've heard terminology such as a "Napoleonic Complex," or an "Oedipus Complex," or an "Inferiority Complex"... You know, a subconscious set of behaviors that defines your patterns of thinking, feeling, and interacting with the world around you. Thus in an effort to recognize one of my own neuroses (and believe me, there are many), I think that I should be labeled with a "Washingtonian Complex" -- that is, an overdeveloped sense of identification with the "George"s and "Martha"s of the world. And well, because the first President and First Lady of the United States of America happened to be named George and Martha Washington -- and because my lack of pyschological credentials (and corresponding lack of accountability to the psychological scientific community) allow me to take great liberty with the naming of psychological complices -- I have coined the term "Washingtonian Complex." As a person with this condition, I suffer from an extreme sense of responsibility (to the point of enshaklement), a pronounced tendency toward feelings of inadequacy and jealousy (towards those living a more "privileged" existence), and a heightened sense martyrdom and self-sacrifice (that is actually more typically an attempt at subversive self-glorification)... And I think that every George or Martha in the world knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Although I'm not proud of my Washingtonian Complex, I recognize it in an attempt to neutralize the thought pattern and call myself out to greater caution and accountability. I will likely struggle with recurring lapses into such emotions for the rest of my life. Yet like George Costanza, I will seek to surround myself with other friends who can balance me out. Like Martha of Bethany, I will seek to develop a greater intuition on when to follow Jesus' example to serve by washing others' feet and when to simply sit at Jesus' feet. And like George Bailey, I will seek to remember that, indeed, it's a wonderful life.


At 3:04 AM, Blogger EP said...


You're not alone. I think most of us, if truly honest, feel all of these things at different times. It's hard this life... it's just so hard to be the balanced and perfect person I want to be. Okay, really it's impossible, which is why I need Christ... and as you stated, continue to follow Jesus.


At 11:41 AM, Blogger Eric Asp said...

Thanks for your empathy, Erica. In a strange kind of way, it's comforting to remember that we're all a bit neurotic!

At 12:31 PM, Blogger patricia said...

hey eric & erica ...

when I read your comments, I thought of the words of one of America's greatest thinkers (or was it drinkers?!) ... =)

Jimmy Buffet sings "if we weren't crazy, we'd all go insane" ... the actual song lyric is "if we couldn't laugh, we'd all go insane" but I think in a famous live version of the song he sings the latter lyric ...

anyway, I've been a long-time propenent of having a touch of insanity to truly "balance" life ...

or in the words of my little sister Colleen who surely was quoting someone else, but I have no idea who ... "Everything in moderation, even moderation!!!"

love you guys!!!


At 8:02 PM, Blogger Sander Chan said...


Ik vind jou geweldig zoals jij bent. Een fantastisch persoon en een goede vriend. Dat ben jij niet alleen voor mij, maar voor velen.


Post a Comment

<< Home