After weeks of tweaking this post from one angle after another, I promised myself not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This post is my attempt to do something I can control when everything else in my life and world seem beyond my control. The perfect is the enemy of the good and another excuse for paralysis. So, here it is–perfect or not.
During a fierce thunderstorm in The Sound of Music, Maria calms the von Trapp children with a song. She sings, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, these are a few of my favorite things. When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad; I simply remember my favorite things and then I don’t feel so bad.”
I don’t like dog bites or bee stings, either, but they are not my least favorite things. Those prizes go to canned Lima beans and feeling powerless. I avoid Lima beans by not putting them on my plate. Problem solved.
Feeling powerless is harder to avoid. There is way too much in life over which we have no control: bosses who don’t listen, co-workers who make us crazy, spouses who don’t change, poor decisions by others that affect our future, loved ones’ suffering we cannot alleviate, unemployment while bills accumulate, limitations in our body that keep us from doing what we want and living as we wish. “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” don’t make any of these problems disappear.
Nor do they wipe from our heart how powerless we can feel to address mega issues like helping refugees around the world, slowing climate change, or freeing our country from the tightening grip of oligarchy.
One of the hardest struggles in my life is the tension between powerlessness and agency, paralysis and action. Part of why its has been so hard to write this post is its subject and my commitment to honesty. Dishonest writing is not worth reading.
To write it with honesty and depth has required me to make the medium the message, in the words of Marshall McLuhan. One of the best ways to counter paralysis and powerlessness is to act, for in so doing, we realize we do have power, after all. We gain strength and retain our sense of self. Making myself write honestly, without sugar-coating or easy answers, pushes back against feeling powerless. It has taken a long time to write so few words. On the other hand, the medium is the message.
Much in my life is wonderful, loving, and beautiful and for these I am deeply grateful. But today is for speaking uncomfortable truths many of us would like to avoid. Sugar coated platitudes brush-offs do not sustain us when the fiery trials of life threaten to consume, the rivers of sorrow overflow, or the trail seems too steep to climb. Speaking truth to each other about the hard parts of life reminds us we are not alone. Others have traveled difficult paths, as all of us will either now or in the future. The wisdom of fellow travelers is only available if we dare to speak honestly.
When I tell of challenges in my life, therefore, it is not to complain, seek pity, or freak anyone out. Reared not to complain or speak about my problems, I have a strong aversion to writing about the disappointments and difficulties of my life. I can only do so with this caveat: that I hope to open a window through which we speak to each other about how to be resilient in the hard parts of life, how to resist feeling powerless in the face of circumstances beyond our control, and how to hold onto hope when the night seems long, and dark.
Every day I wish my body could do more than it can. For eleven years I have tried to adjust to a new normal, but I still struggle at it. I want to go for long walks, hike in the mountains, attend concerts and after-parties, and be a pastor, but I can’t. I want to get rid of my steroid weight and rebuild my muscle tone, but the steroids that cause weight gain keep me alive and my ability to exercise ebbs and flows. I’d like to take Spanish, computer, dance and bridge classes but can’t sustain the necessary energy or count on good air quality for me to attend regularly. I want to visit my mother back east without needing two months to recover from each trip. I long to go outside whenever I want instead of being captive to the vagaries of air pollution, but living somewhere with cleaner air is not up to me. I want to shake my fists in the air, and scream at the world to straighten up and fly right. That won’t change anything either.
I hate feeling powerless. It nibbles away my hope and sense of self. Like Chinese foot binding it warps my stance in the world. Like a clipped wing, it prevents me from flying. Like a blindfold, it keeps me from finding a way forward. It debilitates and paralyzes. It is truly one of my least favorite things.
Even if Rodgers and Hammerstein’s words about raindrops on roses seem trite, there is wisdom in the song. Maria is teaching the children they can at least control their attitude and responses to unpleasant situations. She is teaching them about personal power in the face of powerlessness.
The key to countering powerlessness is to find something, no matter how small it seems, that we can control and then do it. American prisoners released by Iran this year gave powerful examples of how even small actions helped them survive in prison. One spoke of how, hooded and handcuffed, they bumped into each other as a sign of solidarity when passing in hallways. A journalist wrote articles in his head to stay mentally sharp and remember who he was. Another walked laps around his tiny cell to feel his muscles move. Each found something, internal or external, to control. The small sense of personal power they gained built a bulwark against the devastation of feeling powerless.
Like the prisoners, no matter our circumstances, we can control our attitude and our response to our situation. Even if we cannot change the external world or the people around us, we can create an internal space where we do whatever we want–repeat a mantra or pray; imagine decorating rooms, planting gardens, writing music or kayaking on a mountain lake; work math problems or create Rube Goldberg machines. Controlling our attitude is a type of personal power.
Do you wish you could take away a loved one’s suffering? Wipe a fevered brow with a cool cloth, rub lotion on dry hands, play a CD, or bring forbidden treats to share. You are not powerless, after all.
Are you afraid of being fired or can’t stand your job? Don’t wait for the axe to fall or remain paralyzed in unhappiness. Force yourself to write your resume, even if it seems frightening or overwhelming. You will stand straighter, feel like flying, and begin to see a way forward. Only you control whether your resume is written. You are not powerless, after all.
Even seemingly tiny actions remind us that we have choices to exercise, ways to celebrate life and help others, ways to enjoy beauty and create goodness, and ways to work for good. Besides, small actions often lead to bigger ones and cause ripples in others’ lives of which we may never be aware.
A few weeks ago, I wrote the following for this blog to help myself recognize how I am pushing back against feeling powerless.
I am walking 20 – 30 minutes at least twice a week and still hope to walk around the Rose Bowl again soon. I exercise with my trainer twice a week to rebuild strength and stamina. I am trying again to write each day and stretch these mental muscles. I attend worship, concerts, and study groups whenever I can so I stay in contact with the world. Air quality permitting, I sit in my backyard and marvel at the beauty I helped create. I pray for others and the world. I try to bring bring joy to cashiers and and tech support people with whom I have contact. Maybe I’ll take Spanish, computer and bridge tutorials on my computer. I am not powerlessness, no matter how much of life is beyond my control.
It not only sounded good, it was true at the time I wrote it. Then the air quality in Los Angeles tanked and life crashed around me. For 14 of the past 18 days I have been confined to my house (and often to a small room where the air is cleanest) in order to protect my heart and lungs from high levels of air pollution. Gone are the walks, exercise, concerts, worship, cooking, and sitting in my backyard. The pollution reaches to the ocean and north into the mountains, so those retreats are out, as well. It isn’t even safe for me to walk to my mailbox.
How do I keep from feeling powerless when once again, everything has been stripped away? The honest answer is that I don’t know yet. It stinks. To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out how to walk the talk of this post under my latest circumstances. I do know that publishing this post is something is an action I can take. I will push the publish button, no matter what. Then I will take a nap and rest. I am not powerless. Nor are you.
PHOTO CREDIT: JULIE ANDREWS in the 1965 film “The Sound of Music.” ( Argyle Enterprises and 20th Century Fox in NYTimes 5/30/05)
Good to hear from you again. I was beginning to wonder and worry. I have a new email address due to something so small as messy email service being my only current concern, which seems unfair to someone who has much bigger worries. I am now: firstname.lastname@example.org Much love, Pat
Powerlessness can be experienced on many different levels. The last time Pam heard me railing against it she drove to North Knoxville and borrowed a friend’s copy of The Art of Living by the Stoic philosopher Epictitus. Works for me every time. But not for everyone. I again have my own copy, but the last one somehow got lost when I gave it to Pam upon news of her cancer diagnosis. Perhaps the trash man found it helpful.
Steve, Thanks for your suggestion. I am checking to see if Mark has it in his part of our library. If not, I will look up a copy.
Such learned wisdom Barbara
Thank you for being honest and sharing it.
I so admire you
Thank you, Jean.
I just wanted to comment and let you know that I can relate to your feelings of powerlessness.
I spent the first ten years of my life at the mercy of my biological father, who was an angry, evil, and abusive man, who used rape as punishment for wrongdoing, and who told me he had to abuse me because God hated me.
And by the way, just so you know, I’m not talking about Bill, the guy you knew. He came along after my mom got divorced from my biological father.
So when I became a Christian it took many years before I was able to accept God’s love, before I was able to trust that God had my best interests at heart. For a long time I was convinced He was trying to trick me all the time because that’s what my father had always done.
I finally realized that God was nothing like my father~that they were diametrically opposed to each other in every way. I also figured out that if I wanted to know what God was like, the best way to do that was to read the Bible. What I found out was that God was nothing like my father. Rather, He is a God of faithfulness and unchanging love, a God who never lies, who always keeps His promises, and who never gives up on His children. And who loves me so much that He was willing to send His Son, Jesus Christ, to die the most humiliating of deaths, death on a cross, for my sins. I couldn’t fathom a love like that. I certainly had never experienced that kind of love~quite the opposite, in fact. It was a huge revelation for me and a whole new world was opened up to me. I began to experience healing from my past at God’s hand because I found out I could trust Him.
Now, all these years later, while I still have my struggles, life is so different from anything I ever thought it could be, all because I learned to trust God’s love for me. I’ve also learned to be grateful for every little goodness I experience during my day, something I’m sure you’ve learned to do as well. And probably the most important thing of all that I’ve learned is that God is always, ALWAYS with me (Romans 8:35-39; Psalm 139:1-18). I find that fact alone is so comforting because it makes me feel safe. And because I know that He’s always with me I know that I can talk to Him whenever I want, so my prayer life has exploded. And something else: I’m so grateful that by God’s grace I’ve been able to forgive my father for everything he did to me. You can’t imagine what a relief it is to not have to carry that bitterness around.
I hope my story encourages you. That was my intention in telling it. I’ve known what it feels like to be utterly powerless, and I ended up having to depend on God because I had nowhere else to turn~which if you think about it is another kind of powerlessness, but it’s a powerlessness I choose to accept because I trust that God knows what He’s doing and that His sovereign will over my life is what’s best for me. I choose to believe that He’s smarter than me and that He knows the bigger picture of how my life fits in with the overall plan of things, which I can’t see. It’s certainly better than me trying to control everything with my limited knowledge and understanding of everything, and it makes things so much easier because I’m not always worrying about everything~God’s in control! I don’t have to worry about it! It’s His problem! He’ll take care of it!
Bettie Pfaff’s Daughter
P.S. I’ve been thinking about ways you could strike out against that feeling of powerlessness. You mentioned taking online classes. I’m doing that as we speak, and it’s loads of fun. AND, because the farthest you have to go is to your computer, the possibilities are almost endless.
Feel free to email me if you like. My email address is email@example.com.
Your words on strength and courage in worship brought me to a whole new plane two weeks ago. I hoped saying those words did not deplete your energies! They touched my lips with refreshment, thank you. Peace and strength
I was thrilled I could be part of that worship leadership. It gave me a lot of energy and was worth anything it cost me afterwards. It was one of the few days I could be outside, so was extra special.
“Acceptance is the answer to all of my problems today. Whenever I am disturbed it is because I find some person, place or situation unacceptable and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be.”. From the AA book 12 & 12.. The Serenity Prayer is my “go to” for when I cannot accept life on life’s terms. Trying not to control something beyond my control has always been difficult for me and I am reminded that I can only control my own thoughts and actions.
Be well my friend from so many years ago.
Wisdom.Thank you friend.
Always good to hear your word. Miss you all. KHA
I miss you, too, and think of you often as I live with Prednisone side effects. I draw strength from your journey and honesty.. Love, B.
So sorry to hear of your challenges. I am fortunate to be fairly healthy, but understand the helpless, hopeless feeling of depression. My mother was bi-polar and that made for a real roller coaster. My divorce was what got me into therapy and on anti-depressants which changed my life.
I am about to retire. About 90 days to go. That will be when I start things that I want to do instead of to earn a paycheck.
You may remember that I became an advocate for Medicare For All over ten years ago. I probably haven’t shared with you yet that several things, starting with meeting a retired Presbyterian pastor at a meeting in Columbus, gave me the idea that God was calling on me to pursue this path to help all in the U.S. to have easy access to healthcare as needed without copays or deductibles.
Given your situation, I am thinking that you have an interesting story you may be willing to share about how you have fared in the unjust healthcare system we are stuck with presently. I would imagine you could be on Medicare and SSDI. Can you share any of your experiences, good bad or indifferent?
I do know that we can do something to fix healthcare. Are you #FeelingtheBern? I hope you will be able to vote for justice.
Bill, I would not still be alive without access to excellent health care benefits such as those of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I know the life and death difference that economic and health care justice make for people. I worked hard for the Affordable Care Act, know people whose life it has saved, and am eager to see quality health care available to all. I am glad you are giving your energy to the effort.
As one coping with Multiple Sclerosis, I can relate to the uncertainty and frustrations with which you are living. I’m so aware of how my illness impacts my dear husband and family.
One Day at a Time seems to help me……….
Thank you for your wonderful writings!
Yes. One day at a time.
Thank you Barbara for sharing your deepest and most raw feelings. I too need to get back into the habit of journaling on a daily bases as we both know how powerful it can be. My life is still not where I had hoped it would be almost two years after my Brother’s short battle with brain cancer. I somehow feel caught between the emptiness and grieving of not having a Brother around to talk to over coffee, share family history or experience retired life together as Brothers. No one ever wakes up to imagine that today their lives may change and leave them feeling powerless – but life changed in an instant that one morning as he went for his jog and suddenly fell, helpless to stand back up. I think staying as active as I dare and doing things again which might only be small steps towards the new normal for me is all I can manage for now. I try not to rush myself to feel things that I don’t yet feel. I am blessed to have you and Mark in my life and continue to enjoy more todays because I can’t get my yesterdays back (lots of tears though) and I want to live life in such a way that I can bring new energy to those around me. I enjoy your blog and you continue to give me new hope in an otherwise dark space here.
It is easier to take those hard little steps when we hold hands with each other and help one another along, isn’t it? I think knowing other travelers in the darkness helps. I continue to grieve your brother’s death and the loss of the future you planned together. Grace and peace.
may your nap revive you again and give you another smile on your face for being able to write and share these honest feelings.
You DO know that you have God’s love surrounding you through many friends.Love Thea 🙂