by Matt Russell
Powerless. Who likes to admit that we are powerless? I mean, you and me, we sturdy ourselves against life. We amass our resources, protect ourselves, and head out into the world with all we can muster. Every natural instinct cries out against the idea of personal powerlessness. But in an instant, it can all change. Powerlessness has a thousand faces and a million expressions. At its core it’s about life we cannot control, about reality we cannot shape, about a future we cannot master. It’s a mother holding her infant in the emergency room with a 104-degree temperature, realizing that there is nothing she can do to make her baby well. It’s a phone call from your doctor to tell you your test results have returned and you have cancer. It’s the feeling that you don’t have control over how much alcohol you drink, how many drugs you use, how much and what you eat, your sexual urges or your shopping impulses. It’s the feeling of unworthiness and shame that washes over in an instant, or the onset of anxiety, depression, or dread that comes on like the flu, seemingly out of nowhere. Powerlessness rears its head in how we spend our money, how we spend our time, how people act and react toward us. A friend of mine in the program said it well:
For me, powerlessness has one name, and that is reality. The longer I am on this planet the more I realize how little power I have. Life is, and life will do what life will do. I think I can pray, accept, love, and notice, but I don’t have a lot of power. My lack of acceptance and power has caused me a lot of pain and misery. I have come to believe that only through surrender do I live a life that makes sense. When I deny my powerlessness I can hurt a lot of people by insulating myself from the truth. I have spent a lot of time trying to control the people in my life by helping them. I now realize that I cannot help anyone; I can just let them be themselves. I am truly powerless over life. I spent a lot of time believing that I am in control of things, but it is all just my illusions.
A lot of us can relate to this. We’ve invested in the Western illusion that we have access to all the power we need to be self-sufficient, selfaware, self-actualized, and self-made. This is an illusion that causes pain and misery for us and those around us. When we confront experiences of powerlessness, there is a temptation to believe that powerlessness is something we can overcome or manage our way out of. Is this the headwaters of denial? Is this where our self-deception takes root? Is this the gap between the reality that we want to create and project, and the reality of our present situation? In this way, denial gets played out in our lives like a Monty Python scene I remember. When King Arthur meets the Black Knight, having cartoonishly and literally dismantled him, the knight, his limbs laying on the ground, says, “Tis merely a flesh wound—come back!—I’ll bite your knee caps!”
Denial protects our psyche from having to face the reality of what we have lost, what our addiction and behaviors are costing us. The temptation in our culture is to believe that powerlessness is a stage that we can move through with our own resources, maybe even with the resources of God. We think of powerlessness as a stage of development, rather than a state of life’s reality. It is not something we pass through or grow out of on the way to the American dream. Our Christian faith and the Program point to another reality, another path, an alternative truth, and it is this: powerlessness is at the heart of our humanity and is the entrance to transformation. For many of us, it takes a long time to walk through this threshold, and it is usually great pain that carries us beyond the borders of our own control.
I remember the first time I ever felt powerless. I was fourteen years old and my mother (an alive and vivacious woman) started to have unexplained seizures and other physical problems due to cancer in her brain that would go undiscovered for another six years. I remember coming home one day and finding my sister in a panic; the concoction of anti-seizure medication that my mother was prescribed had risen to a toxic level and my mom was having difficulty breathing. My sister, just sixteen years old, insisted that we take her to the emergency room, so we put my mom in the car and started driving. I was in the backseat with my mom when she started to seize and then completely stopped breathing. I had to work to keep her breathing as we drove down the interstate to the hospital. As a teenager, I was utterly overwhelmed, powerless to save my mother. I felt like she was going to die in my arms in the back of that car. She didn’t die that day, but I remember lying awake in my bed that night swearing that I would never feel that depth of desperation, fear, or terror ever again. I vowed that I would never descend into powerlessness like that again. That is the day I became an addict. Now, it was a few years before I found the right drug, the right process, the perfect behavior that insulated me, but I tell you that night, alone in my bed, I shook my fist at the universe and promised never to feel that small again. It was just a matter of time.
The river that runs underneath powerlessness is fear. The fear of being destroyed, of being insignificant, of not being or having enough. The fear of being rejected, of not being in control, of being left. The fear of dying, the fear of shame. The fear of being extinguished or overcome, and finally, overwhelmed.
Enter addiction. Addiction is the complex behaviors and patterns of thinking that we employ to protect us from debilitating fear. And addiction works—it numbs us, distracts us, and displaces our attention. We create smoke screens and symptoms and get lost in the haze (literally) of it all. The difficulty of admitting powerlessness comes when the structure of our whole existence is defined by avoiding this reality. Many of us, feeling cornered, desperate, and at the end of our rope, construct a complex pattern of excuses and self-talk:
- I can quit anytime. I’ve got a handle on this.
- It’s not that bad. Losing that job was not my fault.
- It’s really his/her fault.
- If she/he did ______, I wouldn’t do _______.
- I will quit working so much when the kids get older.
- I will only drink every other day.
- This is the last time.
We minimize our behavior, the places we go, the behaviors we hide, and the fears that we live with. Ultimately, this self-deception costs us our intimacy with ourselves, with God, and with other people. We feel so small, exposed, angry, and hurt. At some point in our lives, many of us just resign to managing the pain and the mess. It’s scary to think that we can become so good at this that we might live in the shadow land of addiction for the rest of our lives.
The question Jesus asks the crippled man echoes in our desire to be free from the prison of addiction. For thirty-eight years, a man lay by the pool of Bethesda waiting for the waters to be stirred in order to enter the pools to be healed. Jesus comes to him and asks him a simple question: “Do you want to be made whole?” ( John 5:6)
Underneath our addiction is a desire to be whole, complete, and free, and Jesus knows this. This question is inescapable for us: do you want to be made whole? The truth is that we become dependent upon our anxieties, addictions, and regret, and they become, as Christian Wiman says:
“. . . useful to us, whether as explanations for a life that never
quite finds its true force or direction, or as fuel for ambition, or
as a kind of reflexive secular religion that, paradoxically, unites
us with others in a shared sense of complete isolation: you feel at
home in the world only by never feeling at home in the world.”
And so the question of “wholeness” stands at the threshold of our redemption. Wholeness and powerlessness are partners in the journey of redemption, and because Jesus knows this, He asks us: “Do you want to be made whole?”
It was the persistence of questions like this in my life that helped me realize that I am at the bottom, that I am the crippled man on the side of a pool, able to see a different life but so powerless, ineffective, and screwed up to move in that direction. And surprisingly, this was the entrance and invitation into the life of God. This was falling into the arms of God, the beginning of letting go, of taking “one day at a time.” What a great paradox this is! Our powerlessness, despair, inability, and shame become an invitation, a hallway, a window, a door, a crack that opens into the life of God. Over and over in the gospels, Jesus expresses this alternative reality: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
And it was here, amidst all the insulation of my behaviors, that I heard the whisper of God, felt the presence of God in my deepest shadow. God did not abandon me in my youth in the back seat of that car with my dying mother; He held me as I held my mother. I began to understand that God was there in solidarity with me, that He had not left me, and that very place of powerlessness became the seed of “belief.” Not rational assent to statements of doctrine, but experience of love that is self-authenticating and irrefutably deep. God was with me, and it was my powerlessness and all the darkness that fueled it that opened the door.
In Messy Spirituality, Mike Yacconelli says this way of faith is anything but a straight line. Faith is anything but tidy and neat because you and I are anything but tidy and neat. He says that the spiritual life birthed from our powerlessness is not a formula and it is not a test. It is a relationship. Spirituality at its core is not about competency, but intimacy. Spirituality is not about perfection, but connection. That is why the entrance into the spiritual life starts with facing the reality of myself everyday. If we are invested in holding on to our own power, we will never hold on to the divine power available to us. That is why powerlessness is the entrance: within powerlessness we step back from our compulsiveness and attachments, and stand in what Richard Rohr calls “the naked now.” It is within this place that the love of God, the fellowship of recovery rooms, and Christian community begin to clothe us in the divine reality of our identity: we are loved, and nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Source: Recovering Faith: Words for the Way. Volume 1 [Kelly Hall, ed]