There’s a great scene in the movie Bird (1988), Clint Eastwood’s biopic of famed jazz man Charlie Parker, in which a young musician goes to a club to hear Parker play. Bird (as Parker was called) is so naturally gifted that the musician in the audience leaves the club in despair, walks directly to a nearby bridge, and throw his own saxophone into the brink. One can only guess what he might have been thinking at the time: something along the lines of “What’s the point? I’ll never be as good as that!” Jealousy combined with admiration, mixed with a dash of futility.
And who amongst us hasn’t felt that way at one point or another, when faced with the example of someone who is truly accomplished?
Similarly, in the movie Amadeus (1984), Antonio Salieri faces an equivalent predicament. An accomplished composer in his own right, Salieri is forced to admit to himself that he does not have anywhere near the natural gifts of the young, callow Mozart. Rather than throwing in the musical towel, however, the vengeful Salieri hatches a convoluted plot to bring down his rival composer.
What do both of these stories have in common? Yes, they’re both music related. But in a larger sense, both of these envious musicians exhibit a “catabolic” reaction, based on an assumption. By catabolic, I’m referring to an energetic response that is draining, resisting and contracting. Unlike anabolic energy, which is constructive, expanding, and growth-oriented, catabolic reactions are almost always destructive, both to yourself and, potentially, to those all around you.
Catabolic energy comes in two flavors: Victim-based and Anger-based. The young jazz saxophonist who throws his instrument off the bridge is experiencing victim energy.
While in the throws of this mentality, he manifests thoughts and feelings of guilt, fear, worry, self-doubt, and low self-esteem. Chances are that the poor young musician, faced with Parker’s brilliance, feels he has no other choice than to pack it all in. Rather than being the “cause” of his life, he is “at the effect” of what is happening around him.
By contrast, Salieri is very active. His own catabolic reaction is to strike out, to struggle with, to oppose. Contained within his anger response is antagonism, struggle, resistance, frustration, and defiance. Salieri sees things in stark terms: black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. If he is to win, Salieri figures, Mozart must lose.
Now I mentioned something earlier about an “assumption”. In simple terms, assumptions are thoughts and feelings based on something we’ve experienced for ourselves in the past. In other words, we see something negative happen to us and we then create a narrative in our own mind that, given the similar circumstances, it’s inevitable that the same thing will happen again.
The young jazz musician encounters Charlie Parker’s brilliance and assumes that he will never be able to play like the master (So What’s the Point?!!). Salieri experiences Mozart’s genius and assumes that this situation will continue forever – that his rival will always be better than him and hence he’ll never get the respect he deserves. The question is, are these assumptions really true?
Does talent always trump hard work? Is there no chance that a lesser talent can still achieve acclaim? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But neither character will ever know because they’ve both fallen into a catabolic assumption that their situation (based on the past) will continue along indefinitely, unchanged, no matter what they attempt to do about it.
And yet things DO change, don’t they? Until recently, when I would go out running, I always felt terrible during the first 30 minutes of my work out. It was as if I had never run before: sluggish, chest heaving, out of breath. It was so tempting for me to assume that this would always be my condition. Running is no fun! For 6 months, I suffered through this situation: the first half hour of each run would absolutely suck, then finally my stamina would kick in and I would feel much better towards the second part of my circuit. Happily, my circumstances have recently begun to change. I’ve started noticing that I’m feeling better and better, right from the get go! If I’d given in to my catabolic thoughts and feelings, I might easily have just quit running – because who wants to suffer for the first 30 minutes of one’s work out, right? Where’s the fun in that? By sticking with it and letting go of potential assumptions, I began to make progress.
When faced with seemingly intractable circumstances – whether at home or at work –we need to challenge our catabolic thoughts. If you’re a musician, hold onto your saxophone! (It’s expensive!) You never know what’s going to happen, except for this: for better or for worse, nothing ever stays the same.