The Wisdom of Powerlessness

I’ve had a horrible time coming up with an idea for this month’s column. I suppose that if that’s the worst thing to happen to me I must be having a good week, but it’s still frustrating.

As I’ve watched the Coronavirus pandemic unfold, I’ve been struck by how much hard it is for us to grasp the scope of what we are facing. This is, after all, a global pandemic on a scale we haven’t seen in over a century. And yet, all over the world, everything from sports leagues to local schools are trying to keep to their normal schedules. Even at Peace House Community, I get asked every week when we will fully reopen. I answer that we don’t yet but are working on a plan, while inside I am thinking, “Are you insane?! Everyone on staff and all my volunteers are over 50 and most are in high risk categories. Can’t you accept that Coronavirus is going to disrupt things for a long time?”

Part of the problem, I think, is that we’ve become so used to controlling our surroundings through technology and innovation that we forget what we are dealing with. Mother Nature (or whatever term you want to use) is powerful, and sometimes we have to accept that we are not in control.

Paul, a geography major who I knew in university, summed things up well when he interrupted a conversation to say, completely out of the blue,  “You know, I’ve decided we just shouldn’t build house on flood plains, in tornado alleys, along earthquake zones or next to mountains that are likely to collapse in an avalanche. So many cities were just bad ideas.” A mountain climber who made it to the top of Mount Everest expressed it slightly differently. “Anyone who makes it to the summit knows they haven’t really conquered the mountain. The mountain let them win.”

As we deal with the pandemic, the stress and boredom they have brought on, the damage to the economy that will last indefinitely, we might find a little relief if we stop thinking we can control everything and quickly return to the way things were. Our world has changed, and pretending that we can keep things as they were assumes we have more power than we do.

The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 Step program makes sense in this context. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Obviously AA has 11 follow-up steps, but the starting point is admitting that we aren’t in control, and that simply trying to overpower the problem we face won’t work. Unfortunately, the rest of AA’s program doesn’t provide a roadmap for dealing with a pandemic, but it gives us a starting point.

Of course, I have no more answers for our current situation than anyone else, and I don’t want to imply that we should just throw up our hands a give up. There are actions we can take to get through this as safely and quickly as possible. But even if we take those actions, we have to recognize that we’re not in charge at the moment, and that the best we can do is all we can do as we get through this together.

by Marti Maltby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong

This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.