Reflections: It’s OK to feel helpless—but never hopeless

Perhaps at some time, you have experienced a sense of utter helplessness. Most of us, I am sure, know how it feels to want so badly to change a situation but have no power to do so.

It can be especially hard for those accustomed to moving through life independently, managing even difficult circumstances with apparent ease. There are people who do that quite well. But sometimes life presents a crisis—even a calamity—and we find that our greatest desire and will to alter it is no match for the challenge.

Bishop Woodie W. White

Bishop Woodie W. White

We may be used to solving problems through our intellectual capabilities, financial resources, connections with influential people, and even spiritual maturity. And yet, despite all of that, some “dragons,” “demons” or human conditions seem impervious to our best efforts.

Maybe, in time, all of us find a place called helplessness. When there is simply nothing we can do.

I was reminded of this a few nights ago. Coming home from the airport around midnight, I drove on a stretch of freeway where, most of the time, the traffic is heavy. But at such a late hour, all five lanes in front of me were empty, not a car in sight. There were also only a few cars behind me, and they were barely visible as I glanced at my rearview mirror. Everything was quiet. I was tired, but relaxed and alert.

Suddenly, yards ahead of me, a car seemed to appear from nowhere, moved at great speed across the five lanes, and slammed into the embankment. While no vehicle had been behind me just a few seconds earlier, now there was one in each lane. I was helpless to prevent a crash I realized was inevitable.

My feeling of helplessness was total.

Sometimes we are so powerless to prevent disaster and even tragedy. Perhaps a child, a friend, a colleague or a loved one makes life decisions that are clearly destructive; but your earnest advice and even prayers seem to have no impact on their unhealthy behavior. The one you love moves closer to a consequence you know is inevitable. You watch, helpless.

Or a loved one, even a child—oh, painfully, a child—is in a hospital. The outcome is uncertain. Sometimes even the finest medical experts have exhausted their abilities, and no one has the power to direct the desired outcome of healing and wholeness. You wait, helpless.

A sense of helplessness may also occur when we struggle to bring reconciliation to a troubled marriage. Perhaps we are trying to resolve a clash between colleagues, family members or social adversaries. The situation can come to an impasse for a variety of reasons. Then it becomes clear you have done all you can to repair the brokenness. You stand, helpless.

Not even people of faith can escape these moments. On occasion we wail and curse. In some instances even our own self-destructive behavior results. In the end, though, the best we can do is wait. Usually we pray.

And in those times, as in most circumstances, I sing. I have discovered such a rich source of inspiration and encouragement in hymns and songs of faith that it now comes to me almost automatically. So these words are there for me, when I am in a place called helplessness:

“When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace. In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil. His oath, his covenant, his blood support me in the whelming flood. When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay. On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

No, helplessness does not have to mean hopelessness!

Retired Bishop White is bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.

Steve Horn

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