The Power of Helplessness

“Rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I built my life.”  J.K. Rowling

There was a time in my college years when I was doing all I could to hold things together with the singular goal of making it to graduation.  About this time, I read for the first time a book by Catherine Marshall, “Beyond Ourselves”.  One chapter in particular spoke to me at that time, “The Power of Helplessness”, which, as the title implies, conveyed how much better off we are when we lose the notion that we can control all aspects of our circumstances.

I thought about this recently when a poor relationship completely crashed and burned, I also got sick and missed my first day or work due to illness in almost 20 years, and we lost our electric power for a while due to a storm.  I don’t really believe in “bad days” (bad moments, maybe), but I was in what we might call in baseball parlance a “slump”.

With any challenge, however, lies opportunity and it was important that I seize this one.  There is a healthy sobriety that takes place when you’re teetering toward rock-bottom.  I think of a line from Emily Dickenson, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.”  Every time I’ve been dealt a blow in my life, it has helped me see things I was otherwise too pre-occupied to perceive before.

In this case, I took a step back and realized that too much of me was tied up in the wrong things, and by freeing myself of those things, I made room for more important ones.  I’m never one to shy away from a metaphor, and in this case I think of how we sometimes find ourselves coming upon a prime parking space at a mall.  Now, when this happens we are rightfully pleased.  But what if we were so taken with that space that we decided to stay at the mall indefinitely, lest we lose it?  Would that not be an absurd turn of events?  Perhaps that is what we sometimes do with our lives.  We find ourselves blessed in some way, and before long that blessing becomes a burden as we, without realizing, let it become part of our identity.  The tail begins to wag the dog.  That new car interferes with the time we should spend with family.  Our job becomes our life.  We become possessed by our possessions.

In addition, I realized that I had lost sight of the totality of my life.  We can all look back and think about the difficult things we faced with success and use this to realize that we are capable of doing what’s needed in this situation.  There’s nothing wrong with an occasional pep talk to remind ourselves of the hidden accomplishments that only we know.

Every twelve-step program begins with a statement along the lines of “We admitted that we were powerless over (something) — that our lives had become unmanageable.”  What liberation there is in this admission!  Why liberation?  Because the second step says, “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

I could recite story after story of those who found their greatest strength as a result of realizing their weakness.  (My favorite, perhaps apocryphal, is that when Sylvester Stallone wrote the script for “Rocky” in three days, he had $106 in the bank, no car, and was trying to sell his dog to meet expenses.)

But what about you?  When you strip away your 401K, your position, your planning, the things you think make others value you, what is left?  What is left is you.  And that is your best raw material.



  1. Suzanne says:

    This is really good Randy, we have to find you a larger audience! I love the mall space analogy. Being able to let go of good things in life at the right time is so important, like your children, your sports career, your job, your money..


    1. Randy Mullis says:

      You’re right, Suzanne, we’ve all seen the consequences of holding on too long even to good things. I think when we do that, it’s because we’ve gotten mixed up about who we really are, absent those things.

      Thank you for your comments!


  2. sharmila says:

    Very nice and so true Randy! Your words ring with so much truth …it gives me goosebumps 😉

    I can relate with this from my own life experiences where due to an accident I was unable to walk without support for many weeks.I was dependant on others to help me with my day to day tasks. These felt like the darkest moments of my life at that time.

    But in some moments of light even in that situation, it made me step back, look at life from a different perspective, be grateful for some of the things I would otherwise take for granted. That helped me cope better.

    I can walk now but the weakest moments made me stronger for good. I look back and feel – WOW – I went through that and yet here I am. Thank you.


    1. Randy Mullis says:

      That’s a good, illustrative story Sharmila, and I thank you for sharing it. Sometimes we encounter such a strong lesson that we remember (to our benefit) for the rest of our lives. It sounds like that will be the case with you!

      As always, I appreciate your reading and sharing!


  3. Rob says:

    This blog entry and the comments brought to mind the Leonard Cohen song Anthem. Here is the chorus.

    “Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.”


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