June 25, 2013
The Power of Powerlessness
By Matt Shapiro
Working at Beit T’Shuvah full-time for the past year has been a wild ride, with plenty of ups and downs, Although it can occasionally be somewhat (alright, very) stressful working here, I really love my job. Part of the reason I appreciate it so much is because I’m constantly able to learn in many different ways, including and especially about myself. One of the most important things I’ve learned, and continue to learn, is about the lack of control I have over my own life. This is not to say I don’t make decisions or have important choices to make over the course of the day. Just as it’s important for me to see what I must do in each moment, it’s equally important for me to see that I can respond to events, but not control them. I can’t control if my son gets strep throat, I can’t control if a resident I’m working with relapses and I can’t control whether I break my toe playing barefoot football (barefootball?) in the park. I can respond in healthy and constructive ways (taking care of my son, meeting someone in need where they’re at, wearing shoes when I play sports), but I can’t change the situation itself.
With that in mind, an article I was reading recently struck a false note with me. Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled Why She Drinks about the recent increase of alcoholism among women and different approaches to dealing with this problem. One of the article’s main points is that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), frequently seen as the most prominent organization dealing with this issue, isn’t a good fit for women for a number of reasons, particularly the concept of powerlessness. The article suggests that “the idea of being powerless can underscore a woman's sense of vulnerability. ‘Women need to feel powerful, not like victims of something beyond their control,’ says Dr. Mary Ellen Barnes.” With all due respect to Dr. Barnes, I think this is missing the point of recognizing one’s powerlessness over life. The issue of powerlessness is not in relationship to one’s ego exclusively. The concept of powerlessness speaks to each of our tendencies to try to control and eliminate things that make us uncomfortable. To me, powerlessness holds out the challenge of seeing the world as it is, instead of how I might like it to be.
It was also telling to scroll down and see that the title of the larger work this piece was taken from is Her Best-Kept Secret- Why Women Drink and How They Can Regain Control. From what I’ve seen, recovery isn’t about regaining control, but instead about recognizing how little we have control over. I know I feel very different when I’m able to accept everything from not finding a good parking spot in the morning to painful experiences from my adolescence instead of trying to control everything I’m feeling and others are doing. Rabbi Rami Shapiro wrote a book titled Recovery: The Sacred Art in which he brings spiritual teachings from a number of traditions to the Twelve Steps. He writes about how the Twelve Steps can, in many ways, be applied to anyone’s life, not just addicts. He emphasizes the importance of “quitting in the sense of giving up on the illusion of personal power, control, and life’s manageability. And when we do quit, we discover…life goes on and at last we are free to live it rather than doomed to try to control it.” I know how important that message continues to be for me, and I don’t think gender has anything to do with it.