Is there a downside to empowerment? (November 11, 2010)

Empowerment—it’s everywhere you look. There could hardly be a larger theme in spiritual, self-help, and recovery circles. After ages of being subject to the constricting rules of religion and conventions of society, and after a lifetime of being batted about by a haphazard world, it feels really good to be at last empowered. To think that we can draw our own boundaries, create our own reality, and “quaff” the field of quantum potentiality into the perfect day we desire—that is a great feeling. I remember reading a New Age channel say that the old view, in which we are children of a greater God, was passing away in the age we are entering. No longer are we subservient to a divine Parent. Now we are God.

A Course in Miracles contains a great deal of empowerment. But it also contains the opposite. Surprising for a contemporary teaching, it identifies key areas in which we are totally powerless. Yet far from this powerlessness being a negative, it is actually the grounds for our release. For there is a downside to empowerment, a point which seems to have escaped its proponents, but which once seen, is plain as day.

To begin with, there is the fact that a separate individual, by itself, is simply never going to have enough power. By definition, the individual is a part of a larger whole. This larger whole is, well, larger. Are we as individuals going to actually overpower that larger whole? Can I as an individual really control the universe? Can I really anticipate all that will come to pass and wrangle it into the desired shape? This is why the Course opts for good old-fashioned reliance on a greater Power, a Power that is even larger than the whole (though One that, in this case, is conceived of as wholly loving). As I wrote in my previous post, the Course’s way out of anxiety is to realize that our separate self is just not up to the task, and to instead, as Lesson 194 puts it, place our future in the Hands of God.

So from this standpoint, the message of empowerment can cause us to pursue an unrealistic fantasy of personal power, when we actually should be resting on the Arm of a greater Power.

But this is just the beginning of the downside of empowerment. There is also the misuse of our power. From the Course’s standpoint, the problem with our lives is not that we haven’t exercised our power, it’s that we have. Our lives, with all their problems and anxieties, are the result of our power misused. According to the Course, the dream we call our lives is “a children’s game, in which the child becomes the father, powerful, but with the little wisdom of a child” (T-29.IX.6:4). Given that “little wisdom,” should we really be so quick the “quaff” the world into the shape we prefer? The Course makes an obvious point: “You who cannot even control yourself should hardly aspire to control the universe” (T-12.VIII.5:4).

It just gets worse from there. If the Course is right, much of our pain in life comes from feeling that we have abused our power by hurting others. We believe our actions have caused real injury, perhaps to their bodies, but even more importantly to their minds and hearts. Most of us have left behind some pretty significant human wreckage. There may well be people who are in pain every day because of our past actions. We try to stuff this awareness away, out of view, but it still haunts us—perhaps far more than we know.

Further, if we have done real damage to others, then we have simultaneously damaged ourselves. When we injure someone else, we seem to taint our own identity. It’s as if we have stained ourselves—spoiled our innocence and replaced it with corruption. Guilt—which is the emotion we are talking about here—is the feeling that our misdeeds have changed us into something ugly. This, I think, is the worst aspect of empowerment of all. As the Course so poignantly puts it, we believe we “have made a devil of God’s Son” (W-pI.101.5:3).

The Course’s answer to the destructive power we have turned on others and ourselves is totally unexpected but profoundly liberating. Its answer is that on the level of what is real in other people and ourselves, we have absolutely no power. Others are the Effect of God. We have no causative power over them; God has all of that. We ourselves are the Effect of God. We thus have no causative power over ourselves, either. A purely loving God created all of us perfect, and nothing we can do can put a dent in that. In this crucial area, we are entirely powerless.

There is an incredible safety in this powerlessness. No matter what I did to others, it didn’t do any real damage. No matter how I seem to have screwed myself up, it hasn’t had any real effect. Thank God! Yes, I’ve made mistakes, but in terms of what is real, they haven’t made any difference whatsoever. Could there be any better news than that?

True, the Course does grant us an almost unbelievable amount of power over our experience, to the point of saying that we (all of us, along with all living things anywhere) actually dreamt this universe into place, including all the laws of physics. But it says that, far more than we might ever imagine, we have abused our power. Little did we know, though, that we did so in a lovingly padded room. And so the destructive power we exerted had no real effect. The sentence after that earlier quote about not aspiring to control the universe says, “But look upon what you have made of it, and rejoice that it is not so” (T-12.VIII.5:5).

Therefore, what is striking me about the Course lately is that it teaches what you might call a sweet powerlessness. I can place my life in the Hands of God, and just rest in the safety of that. I can realize that the being of others is already in the Hands of God, safe from anything I have ever done to them. And I can acknowledge that my own being has always been in God’s Hands, protected from all the mistakes I ever made, including the ones I am making right now.

In the face of a hostile reality, powerlessness is fatal. It leaves us exposed to the full force of that hostility. But in the face of an unconditionally loving reality, powerlessness is safety. It leaves us exposed to the full force of that Love, with nothing between us and God’s infinitely tender Hands. No matter what we’ve done, no matter what’s been done to us, no matter how many uncertainties may confront us, we can go through our day feeling exactly as this passage describes:

Now are we saved indeed. For in God’s Hands we rest untroubled, sure that only good can come to us. (W-pI.194.9:1-2)

Isn’t it time, then, to consider the limits of empowerment? Perhaps we can entertain a new stance, in which we treasure the legitimate powers we do have, and then use those powers to sink into sweet powerlessness, in which we rest in the serene safety of God’s Everlasting Arms.

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