“We admitted that we were powerless – that our lives had become unmanageable.” This admission is the first step in recovery for people in 12 Step programs. The focal point of the admission is different, depending on the program (alcohol for AA or Al Anon, gambling for Gamblers Anonymous, addiction for Narcotics Anonymous, etc.), but the point is the same: that something in the person’s life has gone beyond their power to control, and that they are suffering because of it.
Many recovering people say that the first step was the hardest for them to take. It’s not hard to understand why. Admitting powerlessness, an inability to master things in our lives, smacks of failure. Are we not taught to be winners, to strive, to achieve? Aren’t we taught, from the time we are small children, that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to, if we’re just smart enough and work hard enough? Men are taught to climb the ladder and be masters of their domain, whether in the workplace, the home, or their fantasy football leagues. Women are told that they can “have it all,” including a high-powered career and a perfect home and perfect children. And yet, deep down, deep within us in a place we don’t like to admit exists, sometimes even to ourselves, many of us know that we are not perfect, that we can’t have it all, that there are things over which we have no power but which instead have power over us.
For those struggling with addictive behaviors, whether to alcohol or narcotics or gambling or overeating or whatever, the symptoms of powerlessness and unmanageability are more obvious: lost jobs, broken relationships, scarred families, wrecked bodies. For those with less obvious demons, the pain, futility and loneliness are no less real, and the list of things that overwhelm us is seemingly endless. A debilitating physical illness, whether our own or a loved one’s. Depression or another mental illness. The abusive behavior of a spouse or family member or boss. A deep-seated suspicion that we’re not good enough, not smart enough, that everyone else knows something we don’t. The besetting sin that we keep to ourselves but that plagues our conscience in the dark hours of the night. The fear of not having enough that leads us to hoard, and the interior emptiness that leads us to spend beyond our means in hopes of feeling filled. Despite Thomas Harris’ assertion that “I’m okay, you’re okay,” many of us know, at a place deep within ourselves, that we’re not okay. Every day, though, we put on our okay faces and go out into the world, where we pretend to be okay to others and they pretend to be okay to us.
Why do we do this? Why do we carry this weight alone? Why do we abuse ourselves with the lie that somehow, if we just manage better, work harder, think smarter, exercise more willpower, we really will be okay? The answer, I believe, is fear. It is a fearful thing to admit one’s powerlessness, and too often, those fears are justified. There aren’t many places in this world where it is safe to admit one’s powerlessness, to open up about the unmanageability of one’s life. We fear that if we do, we will be judged, and we fear this because we know that too often we respond to the vulnerability of others with judgment ourselves.
As terrifying as it is to admit one’s own powerlessness, it is the first step to freedom. In the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. writes, “We perceive that only through utter defeat are we able to take our first steps toward liberation and strength. Our admissions of personal powerlessness turn out to be firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built.” There is enormous freedom in the admission that “I can’t,” because this admission is the necessary precondition to calling upon the One who can. When we admit our powerlessness, we open the door to seeing the power of God, working through others, transform our lives.
This admission of powerlessness is not foreign to the church. In my own tradition, the Sunday worship service nearly always begins with corporate confession. The form I learned as a child, and learned so well that even today I can recite it from memory, includes the words, “We confess that we are in bondage to sin, and cannot free ourselves.” What is this, if not an admission of powerlessness? The problem is that it has become too ritualized, too communal, too memorized, and too impersonal. I remember sitting at the Easter breakfast one year, between services in a congregation I served, and a woman in the congregation saying to me, “Pastor, I love it when you take the newly baptized babies around the sanctuary and let us all see them, but I really can’t stand it when you tell them that we’re all sinners.” (I should note here that I also told the newly baptized that their sisters and brothers in Christ were also all saints.) When I asked why this was so troubling, she said, “Because I like to think that I’m kinda doing okay. Well, you know. Mostly.”
What if our churches were the kind of place where we could admit, to ourselves and to one another, that we’re not doing okay? What if our churches were the kind of place where we could say, “This is what’s really going on with me, and I can’t fix it and I can’t manage it and I just don’t know what to do with it”? It would probably be pretty uncomfortable, at least at first. In fact, it would be downright scary. But it would also be honest. And powerful. The kind of power that transforms powerlessness into firm bedrock, a foundation for happy and purposeful lives.
Next in the series: Came to Believe