Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. — Marianne Williamson
“Break my heart. Oh, break it again, so I can love more fully.” –Rumi
When I was in high school my friend Bev, from a devout Italian family, suggested I pray a novena for my father to be cured of his MS. I wasn’t quite sure what a novena was, but she wrote the required prayer out and I tucked it carefully in my purse with the thought, “What do I have to lose?”
That nine-day prayer soon stuck in my throat, though, and I abandoned it. Not because I was lazy, or didn’t care to end my dad’s suffering. No, an urgent question stopped me cold. If it were this simple–just repeating a few words for nine days–to be granted a miracle, wouldn’t I be perpetually guilty for all the prayers I didn’t recite?
If the novena worked, I would be living in an impossibly burdensome universe. The idea that human beings might wield so much power, for good or for ill, left me breathless.
I was susceptible to this line of thinking because I already half-believed in such a universe. As a survivor of early sibling deaths, I could not shake off a pervasive sense of personal guilt. And no doubt it was easier for me to dwell on human power than on my experience of powerlessness.
In any case it saddened me repeatedly through the ensuing decades that human beings in general were doing a lousy job with all their power. It seemed to be so casually exercised in a lifetime of knee-jerk reactions and hopelessly confused choices, many of them just completely wrong-headed. As for our creator, I resonated with Woody Allen’s line, “God is an under achiever.”
Fifteen years after I refused to recite that novena so that I could steer clear of overwhelming responsibility, I sat in a doctor’s office with my infant son, weeping. I could not bring myself to have him vaccinated with a DPT, nor could I not vaccinate him. He had just almost died of a seizure with meningitis (there was no vaccine for that in those days.) What if the DPT killed him?
My daughter, age two, was watching this scene. Is it coincidence or karma that recently, as a new mother, she has felt moved to research the psychology of parents who choose not to vaccinate? She tells me that apparently the human psyche balks more at making a proactive choice with a slight risk of death, than at doing nothing and possibly taking a much greater risk. While she shakes her head over this lack of logic (she lives in Ecuador, where the choice seems obvious) I secretly recall that examining room, where a kind physician eventually offered to split the vaccine into half-doses. And I remember my feeling that no one should have such power over life and death as I did in that moment.
Recently my daughter was paying us a visit with her eight-month old baby, who had been highly sensitive since birth. I was distressed to see this beautiful grandchild starting her life out tense and overwrought. Her mother and I had both been this way as infants. I had heard that a local chiropractor “worked miracles” with young babies’ nervous systems. So I was not powerless! I might just nip this family trait in the bud.
My daughter, though doubtful, accepted my offer graciously, in the spirit I would have had with that novena, if I hadn’t been so terrified of its success: “What do I have to lose?”
The treatment worked beautifully. We watched her baby relax under the gentle manipulations of this healer, as if in one ten-minute session (there would be more) this little one simply surrendered forever the hyper-vigilance she had inherited from generations of ancestors.
We were all filled with exhilaration, gratitude, and delight. Yet I was not surprised when my daughter voiced some bewilderment. How could such a dramatic and infinitely sweet healing not raise questions about how the universe worked? I could only say, “I know, I know, it’s hard to take in,” as my heart welled with love for her.
I understood her puzzlement too well. If her perfect baby was already in need of an adjustment to her nervous system, what did that mean for all the other babies of the world? Why should one small choice, one encounter, change the trajectory of a child’s life? It felt too arbitrary, too capricious of the universe to work like this. Who would design a world so seeped in serendipity?
What if I hadn’t known about, or believed in, this chiropractor? What if we, like most of the world, could not afford to pay her? “As the twig is bent, so shall the tree grow,” says an old proverb. If we could unbend the twig of any human life so easily, how much more readily could we just leave it bent forever? We have too much power.
What good did it do to do everything “right,” as my daughter had in her pregnancy, in her labor, in her mothering, if some uncontrollable forces of family predisposition or accident trumped her wisdom and endless care? Too little power.
The same bewilderment has flooded me sometimes as I look back on all my own choices as a mother, and see that the heart-breaking messiness of our family’s life left its mark. For all my attempts, there were so many wrongs I could never heal. There were some I didn’t even see.
I still remember sitting in a Twelve-Step meeting decades ago, listening to an older woman speak with utter humility and acceptance about how her addictions had done great harm to her children. So tied in knots by my own young-mother perfectionism, I was awe-struck by her total lack of guilt. How could she be so peaceful about screwing up her children’s lives?
Perhaps at age sixty-four, I too am finally learning to live the Twelve Steps. After years of running from my life’s heart-breaking imperfection: the untimely deaths, unresolved hurts, mysterious tensions, endless anxiety, I feel a softening of the questions. And there is great joy in that.
You will find these themes explored in my memoir, Ollie, Ollie In Come Free, https://www.amazon.com/Ollie-Come-Free-Memoir-Swallowed/dp/162652968X