Ten months ago today, I crashed.
Riding my bike down a steep hill, approaching a highway with cross traffic that doesn’t stop, I checked left. Nothing. I checked right. Nothing. I eased off the brakes. I checked left again. Something. Coming out of a blind spot behind a squat brick structure, a car traveling about 40 miles per hour.
My mental calculus had us colliding as I crossed the road.
Instinctively, I squeezed the brakes. Hard. The bike slowed. I didn’t. Then, a moment of lift-off, as I went over the handlebars. I’m sure it all happened very quickly, but it felt like slow-motion, and there was at least enough time in mid-air for three words to pass through my mind:
This is happening.
It was a strange thought to have in that moment. If I was a betting man, I’d have put my money on a phrase with more colorful, four-letter words in it. Nevertheless…
This is happening.
What was this, exactly?
In the last ten months, I’ve settled on a lot of answers to that question. None of them correct, probably, and yet all of them true, if you know what I mean. Amongst the true answers, one has been tugging at my sleeve relentlessly, asking for my attention. What was happening?
My passage from power to powerlessness.
You see, each of us is utterly powerful, and each of us is utterly powerless. For instance, in one moment we can be having a tremendous impact on the world within us and around us—with just a mindful breath we can move toward our divine center, with just a few words we can shape the heart of a child, with just a little bit of bravery we can create beautiful things—and in the next moment we are flying helplessly through the air, the only impact that matters the one we’re about to have on the ground.
Power and powerlessness—they fit together within us, like two puzzle pieces.
It’s important that we find that place within us—and within our lives—where our power and powerlessness come together. That edge. That seam. That borderland between the two. Because once you can find that place of intersection, you can start smuggling energy back across the border, taking it back from the things you can’t really control but waste your days trying to influence, and giving it to those things which you can impact.
For instance, instead of trying to become someone we’re not, we could put our energy into becoming the best version of who we are. Instead of hoping to prevent a certain future, we could put our energy into shaping this particular moment. Instead of fantasizing about vindicating dialogues with those who have hurt us, we could put our energy into becoming the safety we never had. Instead of wishing the past hadn’t happened, we could put our energy into redeeming it.
A couple days ago I was on a spring break hike with my wife and kids, when our eyes were drawn to an unusual site. At the edge of a riverbed that becomes swollen with floodwaters during the rainy season, we saw a tree that had been literally bent over by rushing water. It had been powerless to prevent the effects of the weather upon it. That wasn’t what attracted our attention, though.
Rather, we were awed by one of its branches, growing toward the light.
When the tree was upright, this was one of its lowest branches, growing parallel to the ground. Now, with the tree trunk bent sideways, the branch was oriented vertically, and it was taking on all the characteristics of a tree, growing straight upward toward the light, the original trunk now acting like its roots.
In that tree, I saw all the ways we are powerless to prevent the world from bending us out of shape. And I saw how we still have the power to grow toward the light, even when we’ve been bent and broken. Maybe a good life is one in which we learn to accept our limits in liberating ways, so we can maximize our power in loving ways.
Today, ten months to the day after I crashed, I feel a little like that bent and broken tree. My shoulder still isn’t fully healed, and it will never be the same. I’m powerless to change any of that. But I still have the power to ask myself, how will I grow toward the light today?
So, I got back onto my bike for the first time in ten months. As I approached the site of my accident, I broke out into a cold post-traumatic sweat and my heart hammered in my chest and I felt the powerlessness of my bent and broken shoulder. But I kept going, toward the intersection, and through the intersection. Toward the light, if you will.
May you, too,
bent and broken,
find the borderland between what you can and cannot control,
and may you choose to use what power you have,
to grow toward the light.
My new book True Companions is about growing toward the light in all of our relationships by growing quiet, growing strong, and growing old together. Find out more by clicking here.
Also, you can see a full image of that powerless and powerful tree by clicking here!
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.