On Powerlessness

Addiction is in my thoughts every day but especially today because of the death of the immensely talented Philip Seymour Hoffman of apparent drug overdose.

It is no accident that the first step of the 12 Step program confronts us with powerlessness. The cornerstone of ongoing addiction is the belief “I can stop anytime I want to.”

Yet we resist accepting powerlessness. It is not just addicts who must accept it. We all wrestle with degrees of powerlessness in our daily lives. Have you ever struggled to figure out what’s bothering your screaming infant at 3 AM? Have you ever been late for appointment and stuck in a traffic jam? These are just a few examples of the daily dose of powerlessness we are all fed. Other instances of powerlessness are far more serious ranging from life-threatening illness to prolonged abuse to political oppression.

How do we typically react to powerlessness? Most of us (including me) get angry and try to invoke some sort of control, whether that control is an effort at constructive problem-solving or simply blaring one’s horn and yelling at other drivers. Some of us. when confronted with powerlessness, give up. “There’s nothing I can do. Why bother. I think I’ll just stay in bed.”

What can we do in the face of powerlessness? Many great spiritual thinkers from Jesus to the founders of AA to Gandhi to Martin Luther King encourage us to embrace the powerlessness and to find therein a different type of power. That power may have to do with turning our struggles over to the God of our understanding, a step that can bring peace and often a better outcome. Sometimes, too, the decision to embrace powerlessness empowers the person in other ways as it did in India and in Selma Alabama.

The ultimate unhealthy response to powerlessness is to become violent. “I can’t get you to do what I want so I will beat you until you do.” A common response nowadays. So it would seem that, if our intent is to embrace a theology and philosophy of peace, we also must embrace powerlessness.

I used to get into a lot of fights when I was young. It usually was a response to something over which I had no control such as someone else’s behavior. I never felt good about it. In time, I have tried to learn the power of powerlessness. Here is an example.

Some time ago I met for an evaluation with a soldier. He greeted me by saying “You’re the fifth f*****g shrink I’ve had to talk to and I’m f*****g tired of it.” The old me would have told him to get the h*** out of my office. Instead I said that it must be very frustrating having to tell one’s story over and over and that I’d make it is as tolerable as possible. He calmed down to the point that, when he was leaving, he turned to me and said “Well, I guess you’re not so bad so I’ll shake your hand.” One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever had!

This story is nothing in comparison to the abuse endured by Freedom Riders but it is intended to suggest what can happen if we accept powerlessness. As the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus said “Don’t expect or demand that events happen as you would wish them to. Accept events as they actually happen.” Easier said than done!

Reflection: Where do you experience powerlessness in your life? How do you deal with it?