“There is this wonderful, mythical law of nature that says the three things we crave most in life: happiness, freedom, and peace of mind – are always attained by giving them to someone else” – Peyton Conway March, US Army General, Chief of Staff WWI
Most of us grow up learning that in order to be happy, we must compete to acquire more admiration, acceptance, and articles than those around us. We develop have an insatiable need for validation through the external and physical parts of our existence. Throughout my life, I worked tirelessly to either get something I thought I wanted, to gain higher social status that I thought mattered, or to become better than others I thought were less than me. “Better” meant I had nicer things, made more money, was in better shape, had a good job, and was “happier” than my friends. The insatiable need for validation drove me to always want “more” from life. My inability to take care of or love myself created a void that caused me to believe others could fill. The more I believed that I needed love from someone else, in order to make me whole, the more that insatiable need unraveled and evolved into a healthy fear of abandonment. That fear successfully convinced me that my unhealthy, self-destructive choices I made in men and friendships were all that I truly deserved from life.
With this premise, I began to weave together a plan to somehow beat the fear. Not wanting to EVER appear weak to anyone else, I built a wall to keep my vulnerability hidden inside and the appearance of control outside. And, until a few years ago, I got really good at it. I had convinced myself and those around me that I had my s**t together …boooooyyyy…were we fooled. In my efforts to appear strong, I detached myself from anything I felt caused upset or grief or any sort of uncomfortable emotion. I denied that my tumultuous childhood had an impact on my present choices, yet still convinced myself that I would never be dependent on anyone (for fear they would just let me down). About this time, my career skyrocketed. I was also able to cultivate a good amount of power and control at work which then bled into my personal life and my confidence seemingly soared. Of course, I was working 90-hours/week so there really wasn’t much separation between my job and my personal life anyway.
Power [pou-er] noun: 1.) ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something; 2.) political or national strength: the balance of power in Europe; 3.) great or marked ability to do or act; strength; might; force; 4.) the possession of control or command over others; authority; ascendancy: power over men’s minds; 5.) political ascendancy or control in the government of a country, state, etc. Synonyms: ascendancy, authority, authorization, birthright, clout, command, connection, diadem, direction, domination, dominion, hegemony, imperium, influence, inside track, jurisdiction, law, leadership, license, management, might, moxie, omnipotence, paramountcy, predominance, prerogative, prestige, privilege, regency, right, rule, say-so, sovereignty, steam, strength, strings, superiority, supremacy, sway, warrant, weight, wire
Ironically, I have spent my lifetime being angry at those in power. As a child, I rebelled against those who were in a position of authority over me – family, educators, etc. As I got older, this transferred to boyfriends, then my (ex)husband, and often towards any one in a role of authority over me. Fundamentally, I resented being controlled by someone else and always questioned people’s motives for wanting to have that control over others. Yet, I hungered to obtain more power over that which is uncontrollable – life.
Then, a few years ago, I received an unwelcomed and tragic wake-up call as to how little control I had actually “accumulated” and what that power truly amounted to…..my cousin died. His name was Jack….and he was a complete and whole expression of divine love. Just six weeks after he was born, he was admitted to the hospital. He was unresponsive and barely breathing. He had skull fractures, bite marks, bruises, and brain damage. It was Monday afternoon when I got the call that I needed to get to Children’s Hospital as quickly as possible. Until that day, I had been too busy managing a yoga studio (of all places and useless ways to waste your life away, manage a corporate yoga studio….trust me on that….) to go and meet Jack. Until that day, I had no desire to have children.
You see, children and I didn’t really get along, despite my time as a nanny when I was younger. I saw them as a reminder of all of the joy I had missed out on because I acted “wise beyond my years” (whatever that means…I am pretty sure I am not any more wise now than when I was TWO). It is interesting how the Universe just decides one day that your life will dramatically change. Jack had been badly beaten by his father (who is now serving quite a long prison sentence….thank you very much). His head was wrapped in bandages, he was hooked up to several machines to monitor his vital signs, his brain had swelled, he needed a feeding tube and a respirator, yet he fought to live. I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) that afternoon, but in one instant, I fell in love. Jack and I had developed an ineffable bond that was felt by all of those supporting my family. His EEG would light up every time I came in the room and my heart leapt whenever I held him.
The next few weeks were wrought with worry and tension. We did not know if Jack would survive and if he did, he most certainly could not be allowed to return to his parents. The social workers made it clear to Jack’s mother that, while she had not participated in the abuse, she had failed to protect her son. They asked the family who would be willing and able to care for Jack, if and when he recovered from his injuries. Everything in me knew that adopting him was what I wanted and it was the right thing to do. I didn’t know how things would work out, the only thing I knew was that Jack needed to be cared for and loved. It was decided, however, that he would be cared for by his grandmother – obviously the more logical choice considering she did not have a job to manage and had the financial resources needed to tend to his lifetime of medical issues he would face. Jack was released from the hospital into his grandmother’s care. We all made frequent trips to see him, for he had polarized an estranged family into one place for one common cause.
During this time, I had stopped fighting for power and came to understand what it means to let go of control. Had I fought to maintain power, I would have sought revenge against Jack’s father. Of course, we were enraged that someone would harm a child in such a heinous manner (in any manner really), but we realized that harvesting hate wouldn’t change what happened and it would never help Jack get better. Then, Jack’s brain swelled and he didn’t get better, he got worse. Shortly after he turned four months old, Jack died. After he was gone, there were no feelings of rage, there was just silence. The inevitable emptiness that depression delivers after losing someone so precious had blanketed our lives. We felt no need for revenge; Jack’s father had an enormous load to carry, for the remainder of his lifetime, because of the pain and suffering he caused. No amount of anger, power, money, or influence would return Jack to us. At that point, power became irrelevant to my life. Instead, we worked to empower others to make a difference in their community, to impact their choices in the heat of the moment, and to help other families heal.
Empower [em-pou-er] ) verb: 1.) to give official authority or legal power to; 2.) to enable (which also means to provide with the means or opportunity); or 3.) to promote the self-actualization or influence of. Synonyms for empower(ment) are: accredit, allow, capacitate, charge, commission, delegate, entitle, entrust, grant, invest, legitimize, license, okay, permit, privilege, qualify, sanction, vest, warrant
While my aunt was busy formulating the “Give Your Word” campaign, I was fired from a job that didn’t understand why I needed to take the day off for Jack’s funeral. Then, I lost the man who wasn’t there for me when Jack was dying. Loss compounded upon loss, loss that wasn’t fully grieved, and I finally lost my shit. It took me awhile and a few thousand miles of travel around the world to reconnect with myself and to remember what I had learned from Jack. I remembered that I needed treat myself with as much compassion and love as Jack had given all of us. I remembered that power and control are irrelevant when it comes to enjoying life. I remembered that the most fulfilling and comforting moments of my life came from being in the presence of others, as they experienced joy.
Power has the ability to entrance us with its empty promises of security and sway. Security and sway entice us to strive for more ways to insulate our lives from perceived discomfort and the unknown. The more insulated we become, the more disconnected from life we are. That disconnection creates a vicious cycle that evolves into the need for more security and ultimately, more power. I never felt good, whole, loved or complete when I tried maintain a position of power over others. And, I never “got” what mattered most from the power I thought I had – we lost Jack. Love truly gives you the ability to feel empowered. Love does not have a goal, a motive, or a need to confine another being. When you are empowered, you want others to be happy, you are comfortable in your own skin, and you no longer feel your life is lacking. Even if you don’t “get” what you perceive matters, you trust that you will be okay – that WE will be okay. Jack empowered me to love myself, for the first time in my life, and from that grew peace, sweetness of mind and freedom from fear, because I will never abandon myself, or abandon love, again.