I facilitated my first in person meeting recently. After all these months of zoom it was exciting and a little challenging to get dressed, especially the lower half. It was a beautiful warm day and I knew I would be home mid-afternoon so I picked a blouse and jacket, slacks and low heeled shoes. The meeting went well, and I headed home in a good mood.  It was not to last.

I found my regular route home blocked by a police barricade. My plea to let me go home was met with a shake of the head and a wave of the hand to go back. I tried a different approach via the interstate. Blocked as well. My plea on deaf ears. I called my husband and asked him to get on his phone and see if there was any news. I was too busy making u-turns and running into more road blocks.

“Someone kidnapped a woman and drove the wrong way on the Interstate and caused a big accident. The guy escaped and they’re looking for him.” The spot on the Interstate was a mile from our house.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll figure it out. See you soon.”  I was sure I could find a way home, having lived decades in this semi-rural neighborhood outside Santa Fe. I took a dirt road that would lead me to the frontage road, and from there I could cross over the blocked Interstate and make it home.  As I neared the first turn, I saw another road block. I slowed to tell the policemen that I was just trying to get home. Not possible at this time, he said, and when I pressed for details, he said “It’s an ongoing situation — changing by the minute. That’s all I can say.” I thanked him, my anxiety rising.

Aftermath of wrong way collision on I25 near our house

I continued on the dirt road to the next opportunity to cross the interstate and was met with a line of stopped vehicles as far as the eye could see. I could only travel in the direction that took me farther from home, but at least I was moving. I looked at the gas gauge and panicked. Would I make it to the next station? What if I had to spend the night in the car? I made it to the station, joined the line of equally panicked drivers and filled up. My next obsession was not freezing to death. The sun was going down and it would soon be really cold. I was dressed for work, not for car camping. I had to have a sweater. I remembered a boutique store nearby. I screeched into the parking lot, dismounted and ran to the store. The door was open but the clerk was closing up.

“You’re not closing.” It wasn’t a question. It was a command, a loud one. She explained that they closed at 4:00, and it was 4:05 and she couldn’t make any more sales.

“I have to have a sweater and I have to have it now!” I was shouting. She froze and I could see she was trying to assess the threat.

“We don’t have sweaters,” she tried.

I whirled around and saw a fuzzy turtle neck on a sale rack within arm’s length. I grabbed it. “This is a sweater. I’m buying it now!” and I slapped my credit card on the counter.

Trying to hang onto her self-respect and do her job, she warned that I couldn’t return it and maybe I should try it on. I would have none of that small talk. “I will not return it! I want it now!” and shoved the card toward her. She completed the sale and I stormed out sweater in hand. To tell the truth I felt pretty good. I got what I wanted and I got it forcefully. But by the time I got to the car I was beginning to wonder.

Why was I so aggressive and angry? Why had I picked on a completely helpless and innocent person. I sat in the driver’s seat, clutching the sweater and thought about it. I was desperate to get home, increasingly desperate the more I was thwarted. At each blockade I needed to be polite, ingratiate myself to the authority, in hopes they would let me go home. I could not under any circumstances make a scene, break their rules, become a problem. But try as I might, it didn’t work. They were understanding but unbending. They had the power, and in case I didn’t notice, they had guns.

So, when I crossed paths with the store clerk, it was my turn to wield some power, albeit in a crazy way. It was as if the ledger had to be balanced. I had suffered under the power of the police; she was going suffer in return.

What does this say about humans in conflict or in times of stress? If someone with the power is denying you what you desperately need, and there is no way to fight back or negotiate, do you need to take it out on some unlucky person below you in the pecking order? I thought about cases I have mediated where there has been someone as “possessed” as I was at the table. Always aware of people’s strategies to get what they need and/or want, I have been confounded by some behavior that makes no sense. What’s behind those seemingly pointless attacks, I ask myself. I look down at the sweater and I think I have a clue.

18 thoughts on “Powerless”

  1. WOW! What an experience. I think all of us can relate to a time when we may have or did act in a similar manner. Someone said something along the lines of : we gain wisdom by experience and experience by mistakes. You now have more wisdom. You may be interested in a book, Humankind, by Rutger Bregman. Perhaps you have already read it. Always enjoy your stories of experiences you have had.

    1. I’ll look for the book — thanks. And yes, mistakes are great teachers, and there seems to be a never-ending supply of them!

  2. I feel helpless, powerless and I have a NEED to know – how did you get home?

    1. Ahh, yes, the end of the story! I finally decided to drive south in a big loop from Eldorado through Galisteo and eventually to Cerrillos Road (I give those names cuz I know you know the area!). It took about 45 minutes and was bumper to bumper but I was able to access our neighborhood from there. I got home about 8:30… and my sweater was warm!

  3. Nice sweater. And a lucid explanation for those “spikes” in our normal, polite, reasonable reactions. And I enjoyed your writing as always.


  4. This is so insightful, Lucy. The other emotion that gets triggered all too often in powerless situations is humiliation. I’m convinced humiliation drives much of the world’s angst.

    1. You’re so right! Humiliation is a big one. I think about that with Putin, how dangerous it is for him to be humiliated…. and how the media doesn’t seem to see the risk.

  5. Lucy,
    As always, thank you for sharing your vulnerability with all through your writing. I’ve been in a few conversations this week reminding myself and others that we have all come through two years of shared trauma. As we hopefully exit, we all have shared PTSD. Being gentle with ourselves and others will be key. I’m trying to be aware everyday!
    Much love to you!

    1. Thank you, Julie! Such a wise reminder to be gentle to ourselves and others …to the greatest extent possible… unless we need a sweater now! Hope you are well, love, Lucy

  6. Hi Lucy,
    Your harrowing experience, and your new realization about parties struggling to mediate a solution to their disagreements, reminded me of this: “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Someone said made this statement in a poetry reading recently, to explain how we can find strength to cope with events plaguing our lives and livelihoods.
    Take care,

  7. Hi Lucy,
    Very inspiring how you gave words to this experience.
    * Power forced upon someone,
    * not being able to express yourself according to your feelings, and
    * not being able to fulfill ones needs (even for one day).
    It is interesting to experience this once in a while, how annoying they might be. As you point out, it helps to understand people better, who suffer this so much more often. Thanks for your insight!
    Warmly, Marja

    1. Thank you, Marja! Wonderful to hear from you…and to be reminded that this little glimpse of feeling powerless is nothing compared to those who feel it daily, are born into it, or find themselves in a situation like Ukraine.

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