Helpless? Everyone at one time experiences it due to aging, declining health, shattered relationships, or deteriorating world conditions. The way we confront the feeling shapes our lives. I learned how to deal with helpless from an African-American scholar, people nearing the end of their lives, cancer, and my father—a grocer who rose above racism.
Story 1. At a University of Pittsburgh peace rally in the late 1960’s I was isolated—with military precision—by a large group of ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) students. I felt helpless to do anything as they spewed vitriolic utterances at me as if the words were too hot to remain in their mouths. I prepared my body to be pummeled. Surprisingly, instead of being attacked, the tight circle began to dissipate as if the crowd thought I had leprosy. Eventually, I turned around and saw George, a six-foot-eight-inch African-American doctoral student who was menacingly glaring at the hostile crowd. Although he was helpless by himself to make the world more peaceful, through a simple gesture made a difference in my life.
Story 2. The lesson was repeated when I was a hospice bedside volunteer for eight years in San Francisco. During that time every person I served was helpless to extend their life. Although some remained depressed throughout their stay at the Zen Hospice Guest House, many had a revelation: although they couldn’t save themselves, they could make a difference in the lives of other people. One man reached back to a woman he hurt more than forty years ago and apologized for what he did. A woman estranged from her daughters tried to re-establish a relationship with them. A well-known gay activist published a journal he felt would benefit others who were on a path similar to his. Each person confronted their feeling of being helpless by creating a legacy.
Story 3. I didn’t realize how my father dealt with being helpless until many years after his death. He was an immigrant from Poland who survived pogroms in Warsaw and discrimination in a small anti-Semitic town in eastern Pennsylvania where he and my mother worked seven days a week in their grocery store. He was helpless to change people’s attitudes towards Jews and how adults treated his children, but he could—and did—instill the value of tolerance in my brother and me.
Story 4. I have been living with prostate cancer for fifteen years. Although I’m helpless in convincing the aberrant cells to do anything other than what they are determined to do (I’ve never been good at talking to brainless entities) I can share the experience in my writing with others in the hope that what I have gone through will help them.
We may not be able to change the course of world events, reverse a medical condition, preserve a relationship, stop the hurtful words of our political leaders, or extend the life of a loved one. But we can do more than remain paralyzed by feeling helpless. For many years I felt depressed about my inability to change “the big picture,” until I realized there were other ways to make a difference. Portia, in Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice says:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Shakespeare’s poignant words contain a powerful lesson for anyone who feels helpless: what you can do on a small scale will not only benefit others but your soul.
Don’t Feel Helpless: Do Something Positive
We are living in strange times where change is occurring at a frightening pace; some of which you may welcome, others that test your most fundamental beliefs. Regardless where you stand on the cultural or political continuum or the number of failures, you can bridle helplessness by making a difference in the life of just one person. You have the power to go from being a victim to someone who creates a legacy. Yes, vote for what you believe in, boycott unethical companies, continue to be involved in cultural and political movements for which you have passion—but don’t forget the small things, those that will make a difference to one person and will offer you relief from feeling helpless. Hope this helps—it has for me.
Not helpful Dr. Goldberg. What can I do at age 87 a male widower with chronic depression after my reserves of resilience are depleted – now with the Corona Virus crisis keeping me indoors – ruminating about all the things I might have done differently that cannot be changed? I conclude there is nothing anyone can say and nothing I can do to make me feel better but die – which would preserve my minimal estate for my two adult kids. Why should not make my exit?
I so enjoyed reading your wisdom. I especially identify with the idea that any small change you foster, help you give someone, is magnified in the stream of life.
Thank you, dear Stan.
Thank you for your kind words Flo. When Wendy and I were graduate students at Pitt, we lived in Squirrel Hill only a few blocks from the synagogue. It was a very unique place then.