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)