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Posts from — February 2014

Powerful Powerlessness

Powerful Powerlessnes

Anyone who’s worked one of the numerous Twelve-Step programs knows that the work begins with an admission of powerlessness. Alcoholics Anonymous, the mother of these programs, in its main reference text, describes addiction as a condition of “self-will run riot.” The insight here is that addiction is a state in which one’s will is out of control, by which is meant self-control. Thus: “Man takes a drink, drink takes a drink, drink takes the man.” In light of this, it isn’t surprising that recovery depends on acknowledging one’s powerlessness over behavior so willful that one no longer experiences having anything to say about it, whether the addiction is to alcohol (A.A.), narcotics (N.A.) overeating (O.A.) or even the behavior of others (Al Anon). This crucial admission of powerlessness is the moment of truth that can set one free, and as is often the case with admitting a difficult truth, it has a deeply humbling effect that can be life-changing, even life-saving.

Despite the Twelve-Step program’s insight into addiction as a condition of excessive willfulness, the language of its practice loses an important distinction, for Step One of the steps is stated thus: “Admitted we were powerless over alcohol [for example] and that our lives had become unmanageable.” The distinction lost here is between admitting that one is powerless and admitting that one’s will is powerless, and it is by no means a trivial oversight, for it confesses identification with the will. In other words, if I equate “my will is powerless” with “I am powerless,” then I have expressed that I am will-identified, and in a world where our will is all but entirely limited, such an identification cannot serve us well for long. If we keep the distinction, however, important changes of the most useful sort follow, for while our will may be powerless not just in many situations but in every situation past a certain point, it does not at all follow that we are powerless. Where the power of our will ends, we may find the power to accept, to meet our experience without resistance, to stay open to creative solutions, to be curious, to be patient, to refrain from reacting, to remember that things change, and so on—all of which tends to open doors where a moment earlier there were no doors, or so it seemed to the willful gaze. If, however, one is identified with one’s will, then in the face of the powerlessness of the will, one must experience oneself as powerless, and this sort of powerlessness quickly becomes hopelessness and despair. A moment’s reflections make clear that just because we can’t make something happen, it doesn’t follow that that thing, or something better, can’t happen. It only means that it can’t happen through the will. But this in itself is no occasion for hopelessness or despair. On the contrary, it is illumination, clarity, direction, and so, instruction of the most important kind.

Parsing the will and the self, sundering that ancient linkage and waking up from the dream of identification with the will opens up life and the world in wonderful ways. Indeed, it is only when we begin living beyond our will, as it were, that we can truly be said to be living at all. Human will exerts a formidable gravitational pull on us, all but demanding identification and an authority that it may hardly occur to us to question. It is this unexamined infatuation with our will that leads to down blind alleys of self-defeat and misplaced effort until finally we “hit bottom,” as the Twelve-Step programs put it, stop blaming the world, and begin looking for the answers in the only place they can be found—in the mirror.

Perhaps it is immediately helpful to consider that our power lies more in acceptance than in resistance, more in cooperation than in the imposition of our will, more in the willingness to question our conclusions than in attempting to impose them. It may seem to us sometimes that a situation cannot be redeemed, cannot come right, unless and until this or that happens, but life has many more ways of working things out than our will typically considers. It may be waiting to bless us and all that concerns us in surprising ways the moment we take a step back and grant it right of way.

February 16, 2014   Comments Off on Powerful Powerlessness