“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.