Last December I started sending out a monthly letter to the people on my newsletter mailing list. In the letter I give a progress report on my writing, information about upcoming appearances, and I write a long-form letter which is longer than most blog posts. In that letter I try to draw together and connect the thoughts I’m having that month. Some of them have been about being courageous, others about mental health or community building. If you’ve been a reader of this blog for a while, then the letter is like the times when I’m thinking and writing deeply about a topic. I’ve posted last month’s letter below. If letters like that are something you’d like to receive by mail, you can sign up for my Newsletter by clicking this link or the link in the right hand sidebar.
I’ll be sending out my next letter this week, so now is a great time to sign up.
Today I am tired. Some of that is physical because I was up in the middle of the night with one of my kids. Even more is emotional because when I’m awakened in the middle of the night by my 18 year old, the help needed requires more emotional heavy lifting than a snack and a snuggle. (Though snacks and snuggles were a piece of the resolution.) Mostly what they needed was a witness to their struggle and someone nearby to serve as an accountability check while they did small adulting things like washing bedding. Even small adulting steps are potent in taking back life from depression. When they came to wake me, depression was winning. Two hours later it had been pushed back and we could sleep again.
I once had a therapist tell me that feeling powerless is heavily linked to depression. That feels true to me. So true in fact, that when I feel down, one of my automatic responses is to clean or organize or dive into a project. I attempt to take control of my surroundings. Even if my area of control has very little to do with the source of my depression, I still feel better. This coping strategy is presenting me with some challenges as my children reach adulthood. I care deeply about their happiness and futures, but increasingly it is out of my power to make meaningful changes in their outcomes. They are the ones who need to claim control and take actions. No amount of hustle from me gives power to them. They have to claim it for themselves. At most, they need me to witness, watch the outcome without affecting it. Being a witness feels powerless… so my kitchen has been cleaner than usual lately. And I’m making great progress on some remodeling projects.
The challenge ahead of me is learning to be at peace with being powerless. The world is filled with things I can’t control, so I’m exploring the idea that powerlessness does not inevitably lead to depression. That for some types of powerlessness the answer is learning how to take power back while other types of powerlessness need to be answered with acceptance. That thought reminds me strongly of the 1936 sermon by Reinhold Niebahr where he said “give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.” This statement was later reworded and adapted as the Serenity Prayer for use in twelve step recovery programs. Insight to know the difference is the sticking point really. I feel like if I could just handle that part everything else would be easier.
With this goal in mind, I bought two books by Pema Chodron. I saw the titles and immediately thought “I want that.” The books are Comfortable with Uncertainty and Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. I’ve barely had time to crack the spines, so I’m only beginning to absorb what they may have to teach me. The first treasure I’ve found is an image of walking toward the stormy future with heart open to embrace the possibilities as well as feel the impact of the disappointments. “Insight to know the one from the other” isn’t me carefully studying each powerless moment so I can weigh and judge it as Things I can Control and Things I Can’t Control. That tight focus, with intent to judge, is part of the problem. It keeps me focused on the blocked path and whether I can get around the block or have to accept it. Wisdom is found in seeing wider. If I move forward with a broader perspective, I’ll be more likely to see that there are paths all around me and only some of them are blocked. A heart ready to accept powerlessness, that I am not in control, means being more willing to venture down the alternates. Particularly if I’m willing to venture to see the value of the path itself and not merely trying to use it as a detour to get around the block.
To bring this out of the realm of theory, I will grieve less over the struggles of my children when I recognize that being stopped, blocked, depressed is not an ending. It is an opportunity to take a different path and grow a different way. Depression means that something should change. We get trapped in it when we’re afraid of change or unwilling to let go of the familiar (but depression-causing) habits and coping strategies. Sometimes the depression-causing circumstances are outside of our control. (Like me watching my adult children flailing their way toward self sufficiency.) I can’t change the circumstance, but I can change my reaction to it. And I can look around me to see what opportunities are available that I’ve been missing.
My child had a better day because the distress from last night has motivated them to make changes. That would not have happened in the same way if I’d tried to fix, mend, rescue, meddle. I had to step back and give them more space to fail and suffer distress, and then learn from it and recover. This stepping back also gives me more space. Instead of filling that space with worry and grief, I will turn it to good use. I have a novel to write and many of the things I am learning about depression, growth, and powerlessness belong in that novel. It will be interesting to see how working on the concepts in fictional form alters my thinking on the topics. I’m sure my views will evolve yet again.
For today, I’m feeling calm and far less emotionally tired than I was when I began writing this letter. Which says to me that looking wider has already helped me. May it help you too.