The Power of Powerlessness

The more I read online, the more I find myself bombarded by writing that focuses on empowerment. But it tends to do so in the same way: by insisting that we have so much more power over our situations than we think — that our destiny is ours to shape; the world is effectively our oyster.

But I am not sure how empowering this really is. I think that anyone who has lived more than a few years on their own can attest to the fact that there is an awful lot that it is clear we don’t have power over. The world turns daily, and quickly, in a direction we did not determine. It will not stop and start to accord with our wishes. When we don’t see that, it can be very disheartening. When we do, see this, we realize our powerlessness.

But here’s the paradox: the only way to feel truly powerful is to fully grasp how powerless we are. When we understand how small our sphere of influence is, we are empowered to do those things that will truly have an impact.

That sphere of influence basically begins and ends with us. On a few occasions, it can extend to those we’re close with — to family, friends, and coworkers. But it only extends that far if we exercise power over ourselves. It may sound selfish, but the most important and effective work you can do to be empowered is on yourself. When you have ultimate power over yourself, you have a power that very few others have. When they see that power in you, you gain respect and admiration. With that comes the power to affect real change.

The problem, though, is that it’s really hard to gain that kind of power over yourself. Our minds are so active and instinctive — racing around and working based on conditioned habits — that we can rarely sit alone with our thoughts and effectively shape our focus and attention. It’s why listening effectively is difficult. It’s why doing difficult focused work is difficult. It’s why there is such an interest in spiritual practices of all sorts — because they heavily emphasize this kind of work on oneself.

But it all begins with realizing how powerless we are. With that realization comes liberation. We are free to start from zero and make incremental progress toward working with the ebbs and flows of life — rather than against it. We are free to work with our minds to make them more skillful — rather than against them. We are then free to become powerful — and all because we admitted we were powerless.

Funny how that works, right?

Did you find value in this piece? Consider subscribing to my weekly newsletter — Woolgathering. It’s one email per week, with interesting stuff to ponder, from me and from around the web.