We are powerless

by Craig Nudelman

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights, the power goes off across New York City, leaving the residents without electricity for many hours. (We’re becoming rather used to this in our country, aren’t we?).

The song Blackout has the lyrics, ‘we are powerless’. This is a pun — it not only describes the ensemble’s electricity woes, but also the way that their Latino community is treated. Similarly, many South Africans can resonate with these words beyond just Eskom’s blunders. We, too, feel quite powerless when it comes to many of the issues which affect us daily. Many things are completely out of our control, and with this comes psychological side effects that are, essentially, out of our control, too.

In the past two years we have had to deal with Covid, lockdown, loadshedding, a weak economy, unemployment, a corrupt, inefficient, and ineffective government, the crisis in Gaza (which affected so many Jewish South Africans), and most recently, the Russian invasion and subsequent war in Ukraine. All of these issues have had severe impacts on our collective and personal psyches. We probably aren’t out of the woods yet, with petrol prices set to soar in the next few months, among other issues. Of course, we, as ordinary cititzens, can’t do anything to impact these circumstances and yet, it’s so frustrating to sit and do nothing. How do we fight the need to be in control of uncontrollable events?

Let’s first look at why we, or at least most of us, need to have some control in our lives. The first is that it gives us a sense of certainty, which allows us to shape events and outcomes to the way we want them to look. According to Dr Raj Raghunathan, a professor at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, the more control we have, the greater chance there is of achieving our desired outcomes. This boosts out self-confidence and sense of competence, giving us a sense of well-being. Not only does it boost self-confidence and well-being, but studies have shown that those who seek more control will often, as he states, “set loftier goals and also tend to achieve more”.

This is similar to David Robson, author of The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things. He explains that whatever decisions we make, from the smallest, most miniscule ones to life-changing events, make us more productive, healthful, and happier. He states, “Even the most challenging circumstances can be more bearable if we feel that we have some say in the outcome, while small stresses may become exaggerated if we feel that we are completely helpless to change the situation.”

Robson explains that the ongoing uncertainty due to the pandemic, our professional and personal lives has led to our lives been restricted in countless ways. This lack of certainty can be likened to a lack of freedom. We no longer have the freedom to make choices that we want to make. Instead, we have to make choices that we need to make, just to survive. For example, you may not be enjoying your job and are actively seeking employment elsewhere. However, if you are retrenched during that period of time, your control of that situation has suddenly vanished. This emotional and psychologically distressing situation could make findings a job during that time even more difficult.

Events that affect us negatively can lead to heightened stress and could lead to long-term health issues. However, there is a way out of the sense of doom and gloom. The one thing we can do is acknowledge how we feel about the situation and say we are OK with it. Vanessa Kennedy, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery, a rehabilitation centre in Austin, Texas, says that we have to understand that our feelings of stress and heightened emotions are normal. We have been through a really difficult period of time, and we have the right to feel like this. We don’t need to fight what is going on, but rather develop practices which can assist us through our moments of powerlessness.

As we come up to Pesach, it can be meaningful to consider the festival through these lenses. In the story of the Exodus, the Israelites were having a terrible time. Under Pharoah’s watchful eyes, they struggled and toiled, and had no control over how they lived. Their well-being was awful and I’m quite sure that if we could test those who were present in our origin-myth, their cortisol levels would have been through the roof! Their collective imprisonment was all-encompassing. However, once they had left Egypt through Moses’ leadership and vision, they were able to practice freedom, insofar as they could in the circumstances. (I’m sure 40 years in the desert weren’t too conducive to what we would define as freedom and control today). But it was a version of freedom that they had never had before, a feeling of control that allowed them to live a life with more choices.

And so, as we enter the third Covid Pesach, let’s be aware of what is going on in the world and what we can and can’t control. We can’t control the rate of Covid infections, but we can get vaccinated and keep safety measures which limit the spread of the pandemic. We can’t control the loadshedding timetable (will it go to Level 8 during the Seder?!) but we can get a gas stove and emergency lights. We can’t control the economic and socio-political devastation we’re seeing all around us, but we can play Wordle and try to get that five letter word in six attempts.

We may be powerless, in more ways than one, but we can ride the wave and not fight how we feel. In this way we can gain freedom through what we do, and thus control our reactions to what may be happening. As the chorus ends Blackout, they “light up the night sky” with their fireworks. Let’s keep the light shining through this sometimes dark time.

Chag Pesach Sameach!

Craig is a writer, Jewish professional, and tour guide extraordinaire. His deep bass voice has graced stages, synagogues and studios. He is an obedient husband, father to two spectacular daughters, and is known for dad jokes and trivia.

Published in the PDF edition of the Pesach/April 2022 issue – Click here to get it.

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