True Grit vs. Powerlessness |

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The word “powerless” has a prominent place in Alcoholics Anonymous’ program of recovery from addiction. It appears as the fifth word in A.A.’s first step. There are many ways to interpret powerlessness in the context of addiction[i], but this post looks instead at powerlessness in a more universal context.

Every sane person knows they have no power to keep the sun from rising, tides from ebbing and flowing, or time from continually moving forward. These truths are so universally accepted that people don’t really think of these as examples of powerlessness. They are just reality. Stories about controlling the sun, tides, or time are seen as either legends or science fiction.

At the same time, it used to be true that no human could walk on the moon. The mere thought of this was ridiculous, pure fantasy. And yet, through centuries of scientific advances, decades of concentrated devotion to the idea, and the grit of those few men selected to make the journey, the fantasy became reality. President Biden frequently tells us that there is nothing America cannot do once we set our minds to it. Even cancer can be defeated, and who would doubt that this will eventually be accomplished? We tell our children they can be anything they want to be if they work hard enough. Motivational speakers promise unlimited success and riches to those who are dedicated enough to get up whenever they fall and try, try, try. And people are instructed to repeat affirmations like “I am important and deserve to be happy” and “I am thankful for today” to convince their reluctant minds these memes are true. We are encouraged to keep pushing, to never give up.

America especially believes in grit as an important character trait. According to Michigan State University Extension’s literature, “A person with true grit has passion and perseverance. Goals are set and followed through. A person who works really hard to follow through on commitments has true grit.”[ii] I like grit. It got my ancestors to immigrate to this country, to make a new home, and got us to the moon. To never give up, to hold on, and to never quit are important virtues and considered a sign of manhood for the testosterone half of our population.

But—and this is a big but—there are also limitations we all must face. At 5-foot-5 and slow afoot, I was never going to be a superstar in the NBA. Not going to happen no matter how many jump-shots I practiced on frozen mud under the hoop on the side of our barn. I never even made it to my high school varsity team. At some point, it is a matter of wisdom to recognize, acknowledge, and accept our individual limitations. This is the same wisdom contained in A.A.’s Step One. Many alcoholics with true grit, egged on by friends convinced normal people drink and only losers give up, have kept tying one strategy after another to drink without losing control, only to be buried before developing wisdom about their personal limitation. This is what I call true grit vs. wisdom, when we consider it noble to never give up even to the detriment of developing wisdom. Recognizing when to cross the line between the two is the dawning of wisdom.

Let’s jump to a subtle area of powerlessness many people disagree with me about. I do not have control over my emotions. I have ways to soothe my emotions, though not as many as I would like. I know when to shut my mouth to avoid spewing raw feelings onto others. And I have certainly learned that my first emotional reactions are often like the visible kids on the playground, loud but ultimately not as important as they think they are and initially seem to be. I have no ability to decide at night that I will wake up feeling joy and laughter. I simply need to wake the next morning and look inside to see how I am feeling. Feelings must be discovered, not decided upon.

A thought experiment is useful here. Imagine a close friend has worked for five years perfecting a new ice cream flavor. You want to like it. He enthusiastically places a spoonful in your mouth, and your taste buds rebel. You really don’t like it, even though you earnestly wanted to. We have no authoritarian control over our emotions.

The wisdom of A.A.’s first step for all of us is to be realistic about our personal limitations. Learn to live meaningfully and fulsomely within those limitations. Life is too short to keep banging your head against brick walls that are beyond your power to smash through.

To achieve such wisdom, however, you must relinquish some narcissistic fantasies about yourself. You may even have to question some part of your ego ideal. You are not all you want to be or thought you would be when you were a child, or an adolescent, or even a young adult. Immature narcissism is an enemy of reality. It keeps us from the realities of who we are, which is usually a smaller version of what we had hoped to be. Living a right-sized life ultimately takes more than wisdom, and it also paradoxically takes a great deal of the kind of courage of your convictions known as grit. It takes real grit to live within the reality of who you are. Grit is an enemy of wisdom only when our narcissism prevents us from acknowledging realistic limitations.

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