“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” – Marianne Williamson
When I first decided to write about the full Marianne Williamson quote from which the above portion derives, I thought that it would be relatively easy. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that in many ways I was avoiding it, thereby proving the introductory words above true. I am afraid of my power just as I believe many of us are. The question is; why are we so afraid?
Playing Hide and Seek With Myself
The inspiration to write these posts came immediately after I prayed about getting out of my own way in terms of living life in the manner that I believe is most consistent with my “soul’s knowing”. Often when I write, it is not always solely to inform readers of anything in particular. I write largely as a spiritual practice. Ever since I first learned to write coherently, I have written as a means of unclogging the flow of my soul. My preferred method of writing is poetry. This is primarily because it can be interpreted in many ways. And though I don’t like interpretation in my personal interactions, with poetry, I see it as a way for me to hide in public.
For years I would let very few people, if anyone, read what I wrote. And in fact, I have burned many of my writings back when I used paper, just because I wanted to decrease the chances of my writings being read. I basically treated writing like getting naked—it was not meant to be seen by too many people. But after burning a journal that I was writing in as I tried to make sense of my spiritual journey from more legalistic Christianity to a personal walk with Christ, I, for the first time, felt a twinge of regret and decided never to do that again. Some years later, when I started this blog after my dad died, I decided that I needed to put what I wrote out into the world whether anyone read it or not, because in so doing, I felt some sense of responsibility to my own soul’s development to live into what I am writing. It was my way of coming out of hiding.
I have always had a complicated relationship with words. In many ways, they have been both my defense mechanism and my friends. I used them for defense whenever I felt that I was being unjustly treated. I felt like if I could explain myself sufficiently, those who I felt were trying to harm me would realize that there was no need to attack me for what was obviously a misunderstanding. And when my explanations failed, words were my friends who picked me up again and helped remind me that who I am is more than people’s opinions about me or projections onto me. This was especially useful in a society that I often experienced as overly hostile to people like me. But, because of this intimate relationship with words, I was also very protective of them.
For me, words simply meant what they meant. I was not much for nuance or hyperbole in regular conversation. I was a “make it plain” kind of person and didn’t want the words I exchanged with people colored with things like emotions and interpretations based on someone’s past experiences. I said what I said and that was it for me. And to use Bible parlance, my yeses were yeses and my nos were nos. When it came to dialogical exchanges, I was not a fan of play. In matters of communicating my authentic thoughts on a subject, I kept it serious and straightforward. But, being this way made certain relationships difficult, to say the least.
My issue was, if I felt like someone was going to violate my words with any of the above mentioned flavoring, I didn’t want to give them the resources. That’s why my writing was so sacred to me in many ways. So, I felt that protecting its purity was a just cause. Eventually, however, heartbreaks changed all of that. Relational defeats, misunderstandings, the fact that I can’t control projections, transference, or interpretations all kicked my butt so badly that I finally surrendered to the fact that, to engage in human relationships with any depth, means putting your words out there for better or worse.
What We Say and Don’t Say Matters
Eventually I realized that doing all of that word work that I just mentioned was like unconsciously developing a super power. Once I stopped trying to protect myself with words and protect words from others, I discovered that I was highly capable of articulating my thoughts as well as many abstract concepts. I had gotten glimpses of this ability several times in my life, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. Often my way with words frustrated people who would try to convince me of one thing or the other. When it didn’t frustrate people, I would inadvertently convince people to agree with me. I say “inadvertently” because it was rare that I ever cared if people agreed with me.
Even today, I only try to communicate to people for clarity but never for coercion. Unfortunately, in a polarized society, where people put a premium on “being right”, personal convictions can often be interpreted as judgments on those who hold or claim to hold different convictions. That’s never been my way though. But it is hard for others to get this sometimes because if someone asks me what I think about something, my ability to express myself or else admit that I don’t know seems to feel threatening to people who express things that they themselves are not 100% convinced of.
It took me a while to figure this out. Sticking with the super power theme, I eventually started to realize that I was a verbal Neo from the Matrix in some situations and that if I used the power unwisely, I could do harm to people without intending to. At first this felt like a burden. So I got even more careful with who I talked to. The next stage was a feeling of resentment against people who I felt should be able to admit to themselves that they were not totally convinced about the things they brought up to me rather than coming up to me and then getting upset when I linguistically karate chopped them. Even when I warned people that I wasn’t competing with them so arguing with me was a waste of energy, they kept coming and often left upset. This was even worse when I was in situations with people in roles of perceived authority over me.
At one of my bases when in the military, I got in a situation with a superior who confidently spoke incorrectly about something. I tried to clandestinely let him know that what he was asking would not work. But he reacted in a way that called attention to our differing points of view. Because I was perfectly content with letting the individual continue in their false belief, I tried to just let it go. I figured if they kept going in the direction they were going, someone or something would correct them and I didn’t have to go through the hassle of explaining to them and then inadvertently pissing them off. But unfortunately for us both, the person asked me to corroborate their incorrect assumption in front of everyone. I could not do that.
When the person proceeded to make a show of their authority over me and tried to embarrass me into relenting, I used my cultivated word power to express my position in such a way that those for whom he was trying to demonstrate “putting me in my place” felt compelled to tell him that in fact he was wrong. This was after I had already agreed to do what he was asking of me and was even willing to appear looking as if I didn’t understand our operation just to avoid more pointless back and forth. But, he even went so far to tell me that what he was asking of me would work simply because “his rank said so.” So once the others explained to him why what he was asking wouldn’t work, he became visibly uncomfortable. So much so that I initially felt sorry for him. But his inability to gracefully back off bothered me. So when he left the space we were in, I did what I normally never did, I joined in when people started to joke him. As I did, I initially felt a sense of satisfaction. After all, he brought it on himself, right? But not too long after I felt something else—responsibility. Whether the person was there to see it or not, I had done harm with my words.
Now this isn’t to say that this was the first time I had used my words to harm. But this was one of the first times that I had done so knowing that how I chose to use my words could influence people. Since that experience, I’ve been particularly deliberate when find myself in situations where I can tell that the authority figure has a particular investment in being right. Unless there is a direct correlation to someone being harmed by the decision of a person or group, I tend to let time teach lessons that my articulation abilities may not necessarily facilitate. Because, what I’ve witnessed is that when many people experience themselves as having been publicly “made wrong” there is a tendency for them to dig their heels into whatever harmful or misguided decisions or behaviors they were already headed toward.
Overthinking a Good Thing
Someone once told me that a person’s greatest weakness is their strength overdone. That’s me all day. I’m learning to face that. Knowing how to articulate my thoughts wouldn’t seem like a weakness by most standards. But there’s something to the idea of ignorance being bliss. At least from the functional perspective. Thinking often slows response times. Overthinking can sometimes seem to halt responses altogether. Take this blog post for example. I could have been done with this post weeks ago. But because I keep thinking about what I want to say and how I’m going to say it, this post is still lingering. But it’s not just because I’m thinking too much. It’s also because I’m afraid of what I might say and its effect on people. I’m afraid because I know that my ability to read and describe my own thoughts empowers me to speak in such a way that sounds like I have “the right answers”. And if I “sound right”, that means that people who use comparison as their major discerning tool will feel that much feared “wrongness” around me. And that’s where I get stuck.
Logically, I know that I’m not directly responsible for other people’s feelings about how convincingly I express myself. However, because I’ve witnessed people very close to me and others react very poorly to the feeling of being wrong (i.e. shame) I have developed an aversion to expressing this ability outside of certain reasonably controlled contexts. But if I am ever to fully live into myself, I have to clear this excuse. That’s what I’m trying to do with these posts. So for the sake of moving beyond this self imposed limitation, I’m going to end this post and move on to other statements from this powerful observation from Marianne. If you’ve happened to read this far, I hope you received something from it.