Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.

Samantha Smithstein Psy.D.

What The Wild Things Are

The Power in Powerlessness

We must face the ways we are powerless in order to find our power.

Posted Dec 21, 2012

Recently, there has been overwhelming news coverage about the school shooting in Connecticut, claiming the lives of so many young children and adults working at the school. Accompanying that has been the story of end of the Mayan calendar (12/21/12), which has been persistently (misreported) as a prediction for the end of the world.

Both of these incidents can create a profound experience of anxiety or even terror in many people. In the case of the school shooting, parentsschools, teachers and the public in general are left feeling vulnerable and frightened, helpless to stop violence against young children. In the case of the (false) apocalyptic prediction, people are left feeling frightened and helpless to stop the sudden end of the world.

Our response to these stories directly relates to my last article, on facing our powerlessness. The underlying truth of powerlessness in these cases must be faced: no matter what we do, we cannot ensure that no harm comes to our children. We birth them, raise them to the best of our ability, teach them everything we can, and then send them out into the world. We simply must hope for the best. Similarly, there is nothing we can do about some sort of event in the cosmos that may or may not cause the earth’s demise. We must live our lives on this planet hoping that it continues on its course around the sun.

However, by acknowledging and coming to terms with that level of truth of powerlessness, we are then able to discover and act on what we can do: the ways that we are, in fact, powerful. The NRA has suggested that we try to arm as many people as possible in order to stop future violence; and perhaps there are those among us who believe that a society of armed citizens shooting at each other is the answer. However, an alternative answer has been proposed: there is a new kind of openness (and resolve) being expressed by lawmakers to stop the sale and distribution of the kinds of weapons (and clips) that are used in mass shootings. We can also support creating more services for the mentally ill, both adults and children. Supporting gun control legislation and access to mental health services is something we can do – it is a powerful and empowered action we can take to protect our children.

Similarly, while we may not be able to stop a giant black hole from swallowing up our planet, we are capable of doing our part to reduce global warming, help save endangered species, or a myriad of other things that can help to preserve our planet and those we share it with. These are actions we can take to save the earth.

And so, as citizens, both locally and globally, we face the same process as we do in relationship with our loved ones, officemates, and friends: discovering how to live in the balance between admitting on some level that we are powerless, while at the same time (and through that process) finding the power we do have to make real, powerful, and lasting change.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

About the Author

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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