Though I’m capable and resourceful, after terror settled into my relationship with Ron, I experienced a no-possible-escape helplessness. As a teen in the 1960s, horrified and completely trapped, I breathed terror. In The Fog of Faith: Surviving My Impotent God, I describe it this way:
I was trapped as surely as those Russian dissidents I had recently learned about. The totalitarian government informed them that if they tried to escape not only would they be captured and killed, their families and loved ones would also be punished. If you loved your family, it was virtually impossible to wiggle free under those terms.
Unlike the Russian dissidents, I felt responsible for bringing this tyranny into our lives. I was the one who brought him to the farm, so I was the one who had to take care of this. “Next time he calls, I’ll talk to him,” I said, concluding our discussion.
Next time seemed like a hideous but necessary outcome—the only option that didn’t bring on violence or death. I was afraid, but thought surely a solution would present itself soon.
To handle that helplessness, I had to develop keen competence—to understand what would or wouldn’t trigger further danger, to decipher more clearly what I actually knew rather than what I would have preferred to believe. To bolster enough courage and strength to keep myself and my family safe and to face head-on the losses (like controlling my own body), I had to willingly suffer and still maintain enough resilience to enjoy the unburdened aspects of my life.
I accomplished all of this and yet I was helplessness incarnate – the kind of helpless that people find abominable, despicable.
Being helpless is the most hated and avoided human experience. Little else comes close to the adverse reactions that make us abhor helplessness. Even at age sixty-seven I wrestle with the plunge when clients pull me into their feeling of being profoundly trapped with no way out. I want to provide answers, find solutions, or burst through their helplessness.
Perhaps some readers felt frustrated by helplessness in my memoir. It’s uncomfortable and against the grain of our culture to reckon with the reality of impossible situations that do not lean toward fixes.
In fact, we tend to crave inoculations against helplessness. We watch movies, TV programs and read books that take us into helpless positions, like when the hero is completely out-gunned and trapped in a death grip. But in our media, the hero uses a brilliant defense, a super-human strength, or a vastly superior gadget and saves everyone from a previously helpless circumstance. We hunger for this meteoric propulsion out of helplessness over and over again. We passively experience it many times in a single week. When the story’s movement is slower, we still insist on a happy ending.
We seem to need these constant inoculations. It’s tempting to believe that if we just tried harder, used the correct method, gained the necessary insight, attained the best tool, called on the right Resource, or pulled hard enough on our boot straps, the helpless circumstance would vanish.
When We Can’t Wiggle Away
But in real life, sometimes helplessness doesn’t disappear. No magic cures it. Nothing we know can relieve its consequent despair. It cuts through our wishful thinking, our simplistic beliefs, and our fantasized invulnerability. Our souls descend into an aberrant meaninglessness that defies even the structured definitions of hell. What happens after we put hope on hold and death lingers behind our shadow?
I’ll tell you what happens – we become uninspired but persistent students of reality. With omnipresent awareness, we parse the difference between impossible and vaguely possible, between settling sighs and impatient sighs, between wished for beliefs and beliefs, between what might happen and what will happen. We trek the straight and narrow of what is real and we stay attuned to that road at all times, not missing a landmark or changed terrain, not missing a chance, and continuously judging how bleak or unreliable it would be.
Helplessness brings us to the brink of where hope might emerge and holds us on the razor’s edge of perceptions that won’t mislead. That place that slices struggle is also the location of lethargy, sunken chests, depleted muscles, lowered eyelids, and foggy brains, ever in search of clarity and strength.
Looking Beyond a Step into Impossible
It takes guts to follow what I just wrote because none of us want to go where helplessness exists. That is my point. We abhor helplessness and will do just about anything to invent a story that takes us away from it.
I did not invent such a story. It lived it honestly and that means that I have no answer for helplessness, except to live into it when it is real, and see if you get beyond its clutches. Death hangs in the balance. It can go either way.
Pabulum is not and never has been good enough to approach the reality of helplessness.