Embracing Powerlessness, prt. 4 — “Are you telling me to be a doormat?”

If you have read all the posts in this series, you may by now thinking that what I am suggesting here is that you simply give up and become a doormat; that you resign yourself to being walked on by everybody, letting life steamroll you, and settling for whatever scraps fall from everyone else’s table. That is the furthest thing from what I am suggesting.

Embracing powerlessness is all about attitude. It is not throwing your hands up and saying, “I give up, what the hell, I’m never gonna get anything anyway.” Truly embracing powerlessness leads to also embracing the places and situations where you can really effect change. It is not a hopeless surrender to the relentless tides of the world. It is knowing that, even if the tides should carry you away, you can still have peace and happiness. Anything less is not truly embracing powerlessness, for despair and hopelessness suggest that you have still not let go of the idea that life owes you something.

No, if you do what I am actually suggesting, you will find peace. Normally when someone says, “Are you saying I should be a doormat?” what they’re really saying is, “Forget you — there’s no way I’m giving up my right to lean on people against their will, to blame others when things don’t go my way, and to insist that others see the world the way I see it. I will steadfastly continue to think and act as if I am entitled to live free of objection, opposition, difficulty, suffering, and care.” Believe it or not, I don’t disagree with that. Every person truly is entitled to live that way. Peace will never be found along that path, but I believe every person has the right to live and die on that path. It is, however, pointless. And if reading that makes you angry, then perhaps you can step back and understand why. It is upsetting to realize the fact that you have the power to live any way you want to live, but you do not have the power to determine the consequences.

Thousands of years of collected wisdom shows that refusing to let go of the need to change others results in increasing anxiety and unhappiness, but facing your powerlessness — ironically — leads to peace and happiness. It is only as you do this letting go that your attempts to effect change in the world can be anything other than neurotic. You can then exert yourself on the world, but you will be free from the need to succeed. Since you can control your own effort, but often cannot control whether or not your efforts lead to success, you will happily exert yourself, peacefully attempt to effect change where you can, and yet remain wonderfully free from the need for success which, as I have said, you usually cannot control anyway.

That is how powerlessness and power balance each other out. If you hurt me deeply, I am free to let you know. I am free to stop associating with you. I am free to take whatever course of action seems prudent to me, but when I have let go of what I cannot change, I let go of the need for you to change. Because I cannot change you. You may choose to change, and if so that may be great for me, and possibly for you as well. But you may choose not to change, leaving me to pursue my course of not associating with you. I can honor your choice to not change, and I can decide to disassociate from you, while being free of resentment and anger toward you, and especially free of then blaming you for my resentment and anger. If I am resentful and angry, it is not because of what you did, it is because I have not stopped believing that the world owes it to me to be different than it is. This is what it means to truly embrace powerlessness. We begin by facing the fact that we are indeed powerless over much of what matters most to us. We do whatever must be done to let go of the neurotic need to change what we have no chance of changing to begin with. Then we realize that though we cannot change others, we can change ourselves, and we take that work very seriously. As we do this work on ourselves, we are able to continue to let go of our neurotic needs to change what we cannot change, and we can truly enjoy the efforts we are making.

All of this, of course, is just a way of saying that we gradually learn to stop banging our heads against the wall. Sanity starts creeping in. And not until sanity starts creeping in do we realize that our former way of being was insane.