The Power of Powerlessness

By Dan Griffin
I remember when I was very young and my mother and I were in a car accident and she was pinned under the car and as the flames were spreading everywhere I could hear her screaming and I tried desperately to lift the car off of her…oh wait, sorry that was the introduction to The Incredible Hulk. And that is who I wished I was or could be on a regular basis. Or Superman. Or a Green Beret, especially Rambo. From a very young age I was being trained by my father, my schoolmates, and the media to be powerful and to not respect those, including myself, who showed any sign of weakness. Weakness equaled unmanliness—period. Or fag. Or pussy. As in gay or a woman—because that is as unmanly as it gets. There was no grey area. The kill or be killed mentality of my training—subtle at times—to be a man led me to one internecine battle after another. This lasted through the first half of my life. I spent most of that time trying desperately to get power and, more importantly, feel powerful. Everything changed when I was introduced to the idea of powerlessness. When I say introduced I mean I was on my knees and was willing to listen to such a pathetic concept because my ass had been thoroughly kicked by alcohol and pot. Yes, I know addiction recovery is a common narrative these days but one of the more compelling in the human genre, if you ask me.

In my book, A Man’s Way through the Twelve Steps, power is a part of much of the discussion throughout the book and the second chapter, which focuses on the First Step, is all about men’s relationship to power. I interviewed men with different lengths of sobriety from various addictions and yet, much of the ideas and wisdom could help any man. This is what one of the men had to say about powerlessness: “Admitting and accepting powerlessness at face value challenges the notion that men are strong, self-sufficient, and should not admit weakness. Paradoxically, recognizing and admitting powerlessness takes incredible strength and courage and is more manly than living in the fantasy world of denial.” So many of us spend so much of our time trying to control so many things—other people, our emotions, the future, etc. Much of our suffering comes from not realizing that we do not have power in a certain situation. Certainly, that I, alone, do not have the power.
The power inherent in powerlessness is a wonderful paradox. Think about it this way: You are a day laborer and are tasked to move all of the rocks in this one small area. You look over to where you are going to work and it is far enough that you cannot tell exactly what the landscape looks like. You see all of the other workers going to their respective lots. You are ready to work and feeling invincible. You start moving some of the rocks: no problem. Then you see a huge rock that you decide to move next. It will not budge. You keep trying to force this rock to move. If you admit you cannot do it a whole new freedom opens up and you have choices—maybe you keep trying to move it or you turn your attention to all of the other rocks in your area that you can move or you ask some of your fellow workers to help you move the really big rock. We, men, spend a lot of time trying to move these huge rocks by ourselves refusing to ask for help or accept the futility of it—wasting our time and others’ time as well. If we admit we cannot do it somehow that is a reflection of our worth—and our manliness. All of this because of our great fear of being powerless.
A good friend, also quoted in my book, said this: “When I was young, I thought of power as additive, the more I took the more I had. Kind of like money. The program [of the Twelve Steps] has helped me to see that the more I take the less I have. Being powerful enough to experience my powerlessness is being awake and fully alive.” The truth is we are all powerless, to varying degrees at different times throughout our lives. It could be a great fact to connect us all because rooted in our powerlessness is our need for others and our need for community. The irony is that one of the greatest ways to experience true power is when you create enough space in your life for powerlessness.
Dan Griffin’s Website Link: http://dangriffin.com/