Rethinking Powerlessness

Here's my January column for my hometown newspaper, the Holland Sentinel...

What made the last year so difficult for me was that so much of it was out of my control.

As the coronavirus spread, nearly everything I had planned for the year was cancelled, and I found myself in an unusual position: I couldn’t do much about any of it. Decisions were made for me. No one asked, for example, if I wanted to stay home for months at a time; I was told to do it, and I don’t like being told what to do. I don’t know many people who do.

I had some control over my circumstances, but not much. For example, I could make the decision to be safe, by wearing a mask and not being with large groups of people. I could maintain a healthy distance from all but a very few family members, now referred to as “my bubble.” In other words, it was within my control to take all the reasonable precautions suggested by public health professionals. And I did.

And yet, I realized that I wasn’t in control of my life. I felt helpless, which is not something I have much experience with. The more helpless and out-of-control I felt, the more depressed I became. Not for long, though, because I am also one of those people who thinks I should be in control of my feelings. Still, I had to work hard to manage my feelings, and I had to work hard to remain hopeful, to believe that the virus would soon be under control.

There’s that word again: control.

Someone once explained to me that I have what psychologists call an “internal locus of control” (an idea first developed in 1954, I learned later, by the psychologist Julian B. Rotter). If things go my way, I tend to believe it’s because I made those things happen. My good decisions are the reason my life has turned out as it has. Similarly, my health is the result of choices I make daily about diet and exercise. (I sometimes forget that my parents and educational level and socio-economic status are also important contributing factors.) In other words, I ordinarily live as though I am in control of my life.

People with an “external locus of control,” on the other hand, are more likely to feel helpless and powerless. Things don’t go their way, they say, because of external factors, such as where they were born and how they were raised and perhaps the color of their skin, and so they are more likely to blame others for where they are in life. An “external locus of control” is also, not surprisingly, correlated with a higher degree of anxiety, depression, poor health, and despair.

Today I can understand why some people who live with an “external locus of control” have good reasons for feeling the way they do. For maybe the first time in my life I have been forced to live with a loss of control—along with the loss of freedom, the loss of meaningful connections (unless Zoom counts as meaningful connection), and the loss of so much that for me contributes to a meaningful life. The pandemic has been so full of loss!

And the result? The truth is, I am not as resilient as I thought I was. I am far more vulnerable than I expected to be. Resiliency, in psychological terms, is how we respond to changes in our circumstances, especially trauma and adversity, and like a lot of people I know I have had to work harder than ever to keep going. I thought I was a resilient person, and mostly I am, but I discovered my limits over the last year.

I have learned something else. For much of my life I could be judgmental about people who didn’t take responsibility for their lives and their health. I could be smug about the good choices I made, especially when I compared them to the poor choices others made. I could never understand why so many people gave up at the first sign of difficulty. I know better, but I often assume that people who are successful get where they are through grit and determination. (Not to minimize grit and determination, but the story is far more complicated than that.)

So, humbled by the pandemic, here’s my New Year’s resolution, and I invite you to join me: To have more empathy in the coming year with people who say they feel powerless and vulnerable. Last year I caught the tiniest glimpse of what that feels like, and it wasn’t good.

Photo: In the "before times," when international travel was possible, I saw this mask in a market in the Moroccan coastal city of Essaouira (February, 2018).