With the increase in coronavirus deaths, wild fires in the West and East coast storms on steroids, feeling “out-of-control” is becoming the norm rather than an occasional bump in our daily lives.
Everyone at one time experiences helplessness due to aging, declining health, or shattered relationships. We may not be able to change the course of world events, reverse a medical condition, preserve a relationship, stop the hurtful words of our political leaders, or extend a loved one’s life. But we can do more than remain paralyzed by feeling helpless.
Often suggestions for gaining control over one’s life involve counseling were attitudes and feelings are examined. While long-term psychotherapy is desirable from some people, others want the process to be shorter because of a lack of finances or time. The question is often asked, “Is there a quicker way of developing a sense of control than weekly counseling sessions for the next year, two, or three?”
For the past 30 years as a communications counselor, I’ve suggested four practical methods to my clients that move them from just thinking about helplessness to doing something that mitigates it. All were based on lessons taught to me by the actions of an African-American scholar, people nearing the end of their lives, cancer, and my father—a grocer who rose above racism.
Four Stories-Four Lessons
Story 1. Make a Difference on a Small Scale. At a University of Pittsburgh rally to support the Vietnamese war in the late 1960s, 15 of us (Students for a Democratic Society) peacefully protested by asking for the right to debate. In retrospect, I realize it was a flawed tactic since the pro-Vietnamese war supporters numbered in the thousands.
With military precision, I was isolated by a large group of ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) students. By the time I realized what was happening, I felt helpless as the ROTC cadets spewed vitriolic utterances at me. I knew it was only a matter of time before words would be transformed into blows. I prepared my body to be pummeled.
Surprisingly, instead of being attacked, the tight circle began to dissipate as if something contagious was oozing from my body. Eventually, I turned around and saw George, a six-foot-eight-inch African-American doctoral student menacingly glaring at the hostile crowd. Although he was helpless by himself to make the world more peaceful, he made a difference in my life through a simple gesture.
As much as we would like to change the “bigger” things in life, often focusing on something small will result in a more positive outcome and contribute to a feeling of control.
Story 2. Create a Legacy. Every person I served as a hospice bedside volunteer was helpless to extend their life. Although some remained depressed throughout their stay at the Zen Hospice Guest House, many had a revelation. Although they couldn’t save themselves, they could make a difference in the lives of other people, that would transcend their death.
One man reached back to a woman he hurt more than forty years ago and apologized for what he did. A woman estranged from her daughters tried to re-establish a relationship with them. A well-known gay activist published a journal he felt would benefit others on a path similar to his. Each person minimized their feeling of being helpless by creating a legacy.
The creation of a legacy is open to everyone and not measured in terms of money. Instead, it involves an action that far transcends the person creating it.
Story 3. Bring Closer That Which Scares You the Most. I didn’t realize how my father dealt with being helpless until many years after his death. He was an immigrant from Poland who survived pogroms in Warsaw and discrimination in a small anti-Semitic town in eastern Pennsylvania. He was helpless to change people’s attitudes towards Jews and how adults treated his children, but he could—and did—instill the value of tolerance in my brother and me.
Sometimes you can enhance the feeling of control by directly confronting what contributes to your loss of control.
Story 4. Share the Experience. I have been living with prostate cancer for seventeen years. Although I’m helpless in convincing the aberrant cells to do anything other than what they are determined to do, I can share the experience of living with cancer in my writing and hope that what I have gone through will help others.
A feeling of control can be increased by providing information to others seeking control.
Are these four lessons a magical cure for helplessness? Most likely not. Tibetans have a saying, “there isn’t enough leather to cover a road with thorns, but you can wear sandals with good soles.” So, think of these lessons as the soles of shoes that won’t make the road smooth, but will make it tolerable. Often, how we act to adversity has more of an effect on us than the adversity itself.