Awful as it may be, the anatomy of helplessness is fascinating in all its trickery. When struck by it, we feel impotent to and victims of its torment. We scamper madly about in our panic, in search of any external source of aid to bail us out, convinced as we are in those sputtering moments of our own incompetence. This is understandable given how helplessness holds within it the distinct and scary sense of being utterly out of control. But the dominant trouble when we skip over ourselves in sole favor of outside supports is that we actually re-initiate and compound our helplessness.
For the entirety of 2007 and 2008, when in the relentless throes of my illness, the bulk of my days were spent shuffling from one imagined savior to the next. Trying to escape my suffocating helplessness, I ran in desperation for other people to fix me. I basically lived on healing tables and in examination rooms, until more than two years later my wonderful nutritionist suggested to me that I try going one full week without seeing a single expert, and instead just practice being with myself. Somehow, somewhere, her words resonated. I realized that I had been so crippled and broken down, that I had taken myself entirely out of the healing equation. Ironically, only when I gave up the chase, and instead connected with and leaned on myself, did wellness appear.
What’s palpably hard is that helplessness is so unbearable in its de-invigoration that it of course makes us want to bolt. Yet it is crucial that we break the cycle of running from our powerlessness, and instead stop to look at it. This is where the revelatory work resides: In being tolerant of feeling feeble, and in understanding, even in our acute discomfort, that there is more at play than this feeling. In taking a leavened, eyes-open view of our controlling emotion, we see through it and experience the curious and novel landscape beyond that of incapacity. When we honor its transparency, and accept it for what it is, helplessness is transformed into helpfulness.
I love this clean merging with self-reliance. Still, on my more at-sea days, when I start to fray and have the urge to search somewhere else for strength, I listen to Bob Marley’s ‘High Tide or Low Tide’ where he says, “In high seas or in low seas, I’m gonna be your friend, I’m gonna be your friend. In high tide or in low tide, I’ll be by your side, I’ll be by your side.” Quietly, I change the lyrics to “I’m gonna be my friend, I’ll be by my side,” and imagine holding out a stable unwavering branch to myself. In other words, I guide myself back in.
The prolific Zen teacher Norman Fischer also writes of this action, of calling out to and answering self. He asserts, “That’s a beautiful moment: to just drop everything and say to yourself, feel for yourself, here I am. It’s collecting yourself, recollecting yourself, recalling yourself from whatever it is you have been lost in.”
Next time you are discombobulated or at a loss, remember the spirit of help. Try this call and response. You’ll be amazed at how sweetly the moment opens up, brimming in full with the calm solidity of knowing you are in fact your own best ally.