These are turbulent times. Violence is all over the news; be it a mass shooting, a drone strike or a senseless fight breaking out and ending in a death. I have been contemplating the climate we seem to be in as well as tracking my own responses and I keep coming back to the issue of helplessness. Many of these events, and our own internal responses to them, have a common component of helplessness. Yet the experience of helplessness is so uncomfortable we often resist it and jump right to anger, indignation and even aggression, so as to give ourselves some sense of having power and control. Helplessness often carries with it a feeling of fear and isolation and we can see how this cocktail of emotions can motivate people’s actions and attitudes. They may buy a gun. They may seek out like-minded people so as not to feel isolated or challenged. It is such a basic instinct; get a weapon and find your tribe. This is human history in a nutshell. The tribes have gotten bigger and the weapons we have created are so powerful we have the capacity to destroy our entire species as well as the planet. Perhaps it is time to deal with our helplessness in another way.
I remember a story my mother shared with me and it made a very strong impression. She had been a young doctor in residence working in an emergency room. A young boy had been brought in who had almost drowned. He survived the near-drowning but sustained massive brain damage that would render him incapacitated for the rest of his life. When the boy’s father was given the news that his once healthy son would never again speak, walk or play, the father, a large and physically intimidating fellow, became belligerent. He started yelling, throwing things, hitting walls and blaming anyone in the vicinity for his son’s tragic situation.
My mother and the surrounding staff became understandably frightened and backed away from him. Someone called hospital security. Just as the security guards arrived and were planning to forcibly subdue him, a young nurse went and stood right in front of the raging man. My mother would never forget what happened next. She said to him, “Sir, what you need to do for your son is to put your hands in your pockets right now.” And he did. He put his hands in his pockets and stopped yelling. This brilliant nurse knew that this man was really feeling desperately helpless. All he wanted was to be able to do something for his son. In truth he couldn’t save his son from this new reality, but he could put his hands in his pockets so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone and risk being arrested. The man began to weep and my mother remembers the atmosphere changing almost immediately. As soon as the man began to cry, the hospital staff that had been feeling threatened by him now felt compassion for him. Someone told the security guards what the situation was and they too, perhaps fathers themselves, teared up.
It takes tremendous courage to admit and allow ourselves to feel and express our own helplessness. Perhaps the feeling of it, the acknowledgment of it and the compassionate witnessing of it in others will save us from our baser human instincts to get angry and destroy. The next time you have a strong reaction of anger when you hear about a disturbing world event, a political situation or even a conflict in your personal life, I invite you to pause and ask yourself if you are feeling helpless. If the answer is yes, trying sitting with the experience of helplessness. Notice where you feel it in your body and if there is any tendency to avoid feeling what you are feeling. When we can sit with our uncomfortable emotions without trying to resist or repress them (for what we resist persists), there is the capacity for real change. I am reminded of the wisdom of the 8th century Japanese monk Ku Kai when he said, “All things change when we do.”