Why dignity is more important than the one intangible commodity men trade most.
On a cloudless and crisp September day in 1992 I first learned I was powerless. I was four.
I had fearlessly brought my brand-spanking new tricycle to preschool that day, high on a cloud of glory with my shiny purchase. Wednesdays were for tricycle riding in the parking lot, and by God was I ready.
Before I could take off on the gravel-stained drive, Ms. Hershberger, she of the full-bosom and chipped nails, had to snap my helmet in place. Greatly miscalculating my pre-pubescent chin fat, she cleanly ripped off a thin layer of fragile skin as she clipped the headgear onto my lopsided bowl cut. The blood started to flow as my eyes followed suit. Benny Myers rode up on his superior trike and claimed in his harshest tone that my bike was “stupid” and “ugly.” The tears poured out harder and louder.
I learned I was powerless over the world and over other’s thoughts about me. I would gallantly fight against these lessons for the next sixteen years.
How does one claim power? How does one end up powerless? Strokes of fate, a pinch of hard luck, and a tendency to end up in the right place at the right time determine the power we hold.
Men grow up in a society that expects a lot from them. America’s gender culture both promotes men as the most powerful being, while also encouraging us to engage in a life-long power struggle. Power has always been the most important commodity men trade, emanating from our historically-inclined loins.
I define power as the way a man walks into a room. Those with power have it written all over their face, it’s in the way they walk, how they talk. Some were born with it. Some gained it. Almost all lose it.
I never had it to begin with.
Preternaturally shy and insecure, I feared those with power. They seemed to have a guide book to life, set points of progress laid out in linear fashion, points I would never hit. I knew this as a young boy and it haunted me. My father and brother owned the exclusive rights to power in our house and I faltered in their strong current.
As I entered my teen years the fear of my lack of power took on a physical form. Facial tics developed, I couldn’t keep my hands still, and my mind raced. I would never be manly enough, I would always fail. Relief came in the form of a bottle and a baggie.
Drunk off the powerful allure of how drugs made me feel, I was a king. I was an all-mighty being, destined to change the world with my thoughts of supreme clarity.
I didn’t realize I was snorting my way to a slow death.
When the misadventures of the night wore off, I was alone again, more terrified than I ever was before. I began to rely on substances as a way to escape. They were everything: my best friend, savior, enemy, and lover.
By the time I was twenty, I was a broken shell, all jagged limbs and jittery nerves. I was still in the crook of life where I was too young to care and too stupid to think of the mounting consequences.
Forced to enter a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility after one disaster too many, the old feelings of powerlessness arose. I quickly found out Alcoholics Anonymous is based around the idea of admitting powerlessness. This was not something I was willing to do. Admitting my own weakness was a sign of being less of a man, feelings I had fought against since I was that child in the sunlight crying about the power I didn’t have.
After enough pain, the greatest motivator, I was willing to do anything to get well. Admitting defeat and turning my will over did not provide the immediate effect I had hoped for. Only with a daily admittance of powerlessness over my defects and addictions did I feel the gradual loosening of limbs.
That sinking feeling in my stomach began to slowly dissipate. Each daily admission of powerlessness caused more assertiveness, boundary-setting, and confidence. The clarity of mind sobriety provided enabled an aura of serenity and health.
Living up to my responsibilities, holding a job, and hitting my self-defined progress points slowly built up a reserve of power I could feel all around me. It seeped through my pores and put a smile on my face. I didn’t have much, but I had my dignity.
In admitting my own powerlessness I finally gained the power I had always craved.
Photo credit: Flicker / ethanhickerson