Embracing Powerlessness

There is freedom in embracing powerlessness. Most of the time we’re scurrying around trying to fix things — relationships, issues at work, problems with the cars, problems at our kids’ schools — our lives seem like a bewildering array of problems, all of which we believe we have to fix. We believe this deeply enough that we can hardly think of anything worse than not being able to fix something.

But there is freedom in it. As long as I think I have to fix something, I will struggle to fix it. Every time I try and fail, I will feel frustrated, guilty, weak, pathetic, stupid, incompetent, or a host of other negative things. But when I realize that there are things I can’t fix, and stop trying, I find freedom and peace.

What are some things in this world I have no control over and therefore cannot fix?

  • My reputation. I can do my best to be a person others can admire, but people can choose to impute questionable motives to even the best things I do. There’s nothing I can do about that.
  • Other people’s opinions about me. Same as above. No matter how much I love others, people can choose to assume that my love is just disguised self-interest. And some will in fact choose to believe that. I am powerless to change this.
  • Whether I, or my family members, might be in a car accident today. Ultimately I am powerless over the health and well-being of the people I love the most.
  • Whether I might get bad news from a doctor soon. I can eat right and exercise and try to manage stress properly, but I am ultimately powerless to keep myself free of illness.
  • My flaws. I can work on them, but I definitely can’t fix them today. Somehow I will have to love myself in spite of them, and have the courage to ask others to love me in spite of them as well.
  • The state of the world. I can do my part, but it’s so small. I can’t fix the world.
  • Things that go wrong. I have plans for how everything in my life should work, and my life rarely goes according to  plan. I can’t keep working furiously at preventing things from going wrong. Pretty soon I’ll spend more time trying to foresee every possibility of error than I would spend just addressing errors as they come up. I am powerless to make things go according to my plans.
  • My beliefs. Some people will be surprised by this one, but I can only even choose my beliefs to a limited extent. I do not choose to disbelieve in unicorns, or the god Molech. I simply CANNOT believe in them. I am not capable of doing so, no matter how fervently someone believes I ought to. I can only believe something that presents itself to me as true, and I am only responsible for examining that thing closely and determining its truth or falsehood.
  • The weather. I can refrain from littering and burning leaves in my back yard and do what I can to be a good steward of the environment, but I am powerless to fix, change, or customize the weather.
  • The length of my life. I can try to stay healthy, but I cannot determine the number of my days.

When I look at this list, I realize that ultimately I am powerless to ultimately change most things I care most deeply about. It’s not negativity, it’s just fact. Facts are reality, they are “what is.” The sooner we embrace reality and stop fighting against it, the happier we will be. But for some reason we do not do this. Instead, in most areas of our lives, we constantly fight. We battle to protect our reputations. We hang on harder and harder to our lives and schedules in order to keep things from going wrong. We “insist” on being treated a certain way by others, though we are powerless to make them follow through. Even then instead of embracing our powerlessness, we punish others by withdrawing and ignoring, trying to force our way and “make” people do things against their will.

If I could, even for one second, truly accept that my life is a gift for which the only appropriate response is gratitude, I would be free in that second. I would be free to be grateful for what is, instead of angry for what isn’t. I would find freedom to rejoice in things that formerly frustrated me, to accept things I formerly felt I had to change. I would be free to live my life instead of having to engineer it. I would have time to notice the small things that make life beautiful like the fact, for example, that I typed out some words that you are now finding valuable enough to read.

Embracing powerlessness doesn’t mean we give up and adopt a fatalistic attitude towards life, and become Eeyores. We become Eeryores when we can’t tell the difference between what we can and cannot change, and bang our heads relentlessly against walls that never budge. But when we truly embrace the real powerlessness we have in the world, we stop asking so much of ourselves and are free to make whatever changes we can without feeling as if the weight of the world is on our shoulders.  To embrace our powerlessness is to pray in our hearts the Serenity Prayer

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference

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  • Steve

    Good reflections Dave. You should do a follow up with “Things we can do something about”.

    I like Niehbur’s original version of the prayer:

    God, give us grace to accept with serenity
    the things that cannot be changed,
    courage to change the things
    which should be changed,
    and the wisdom to distinguish
    the one from the other.

    Living one day at a time,
    Enjoying one moment at a time,
    Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
    Taking, as Jesus did,
    This sinful world as it is,
    Not as I would have it,
    Trusting that You will make all things right,
    If I surrender to Your will,
    So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
    And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
    Amen.

    — Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

    • You’re a step ahead of me, pal. That’s where I’m headed!