Robby B. Echavez, MAEd, RPm, RPsy, MAGC (cand.)
Powerless, but not choiceless. Out of control, but not out of options. Powerless, but not helpless.Ganda-Gandang Buhay
To the ludicrous question, “Why do you breathe?” we might get the sarcastic reply, “Does it look like I have a choice?” It’s said that nobody ever died or committed suicide by holding his or her breath, because, as many a medical practitioner would explain, once dizziness or passing out occurs as levels of CO2 in our blood rise, breathing resumes involuntarily. Although we can choose to control our breathing, at a certain point, it does not give us that choice and it reverts to an almost fail-safe mechanism for the body to “choose” to sustain itself. This makes perfect sense of course because we drop conscious control of breathing most of the time, especially when we sleep. It goes on automatic.
There are psychological lessons that can be derived from this, something related to the first in the 12 Steps observed as wisdom in anonymous groups– “We admitted we were powerless over others, alcohol, addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.” There have been no shortage of pundits and commentaries on this and the other steps and I do not wish to provide one here, but only to join in the pondering and the questioning.
This first step, is the first step for a reason– it is the hardest pill to swallow and if you can accept it, you can accept the other 11! The admitting part quickly gets us into a good toss and turning-over. Am I really powerless? Has my life really become so unmanageable? This is what happens to us when a guru or a psychologist tells us that we can start with breathing.
Mental health professional: Let’s begin with some breathing exercises.
Service user: Does that really help?
Psychotherapist: It seems you’ve forgotten how to breathe.
Client: Do you think me crazy to have forgotten how to breathe?
Social Worker: Why don’t you relax and take a deep breath for a bit?
Beneficiary: Shouldn’t I be doing more important things?
The first step is like that first breath an infant takes out of the womb that announces to the mother, the father, and the world that it is alive. That’s what we have to admit that we are powerless over– mother, father, the world, others. Since our first cry, we reinforce and cling to omnipotence, wanting to convince ourselves that like that cry fresh out of the womb, we can say and do things that will have everyone at our beck and call. We can tell our parents words that will have them continually care for us. We can sell an idea to our customers convincing them that they need us, our services and our products. We can pull students by the strings, hold them at a pen’s tip so they do as they are told. We can put our children on a leash so that they are eternally obedient. Believing these is like believing we could kill ourselves by holding our breath. The truth is we can’t. We can try until we turn blue, pass out, and awake again seeing that the world is completely okay without us; that it went on spinning while we were unconscious.
Everybody else goes on living and the most impact we had was a momentary pause and maybe, as a bonus, some exchange of “Naunsa na si mama? Ngano man toh si sir nga suko man kaayo? Nag drama lagi toh? Hala nakuyapan!” This was the effect of our control, denial, avoidance, low self-esteem, and compliance. This was what it warranted. And then the grind continues, leaving us and only us with lives unmanageable. This is when we collapse and faint. Like the brat who says, “I will hold my breath until you give me this or that!” we turn blue and knock ourselves out cold, waking up more miserable than ever because… you guessed it… we still didn’t get what we want. Stop smoking! Never be late! Reciprocate your love for me! Follow me because I know better! Do it, or I will hold my breath. We did. And we passed out, never at all managing what we set out to influence, control, or overpower.
Like the body, the world has its nearly fail-safe survival mechanism, what Jung calls the Self, that dynamic process of completion and fulfillment. Like the ever-going spiral that seeks its center, other people and the world will keep going, even without us, to complete, transform, and fulfill itself. Our children will continue living, our students will continue learning, our partners loving, our enemies hating, our dependent brother or sister with their lives as they wish to live it. No amount of our control, our influence, or coercion will stop the world from seeking fruition.
Does the first step mean we stop trying? That we cease to make a difference? That we relinquish ALL control to the external and the vagaries of life? No. In fact, the first step is quite specific to what we should admit we are powerless to– it is the power over others; not the power with others, not the power for a cause or an advocacy, not the power from the people. Power over, as nonviolent communication teaches us, is domination. It is tyrannical and dictatorial control. It is totalitarianism. This we admit we can never have– to be able to make everyone else puppets and move according to our design. Love me. Respect me. Fear me. It is a fantasy we cling to that we are better rid of.
And how are we better, being rid of this wish for omnipotence? Once we relinquish this, we accept that we and our lives had become free, whole (i.e., one with integrity), and empowered. It is similar to “death by holding one’s breath”. It teaches you that bodily and voluntary control can only go so far and once the limit of that control is reached, one will have to accept that life as a force takes over to complete what our human shortcomings cannot. And that is okay. This life is never for us to complete as a solo mission. This universe is never for us to build or create as its maker. This family is never for us to singly love and be responsible for. This is a choice too. And when you acknowledge that you can make this choice, like the person who awakens from fainting after not breathing, you awake to life freer, more whole, and truly more powerful.