Updated: Jan 25, 2019
Willpower is our willingness combined with our power, applied with concentration and determination. Applying this willpower can be as simple as accessing the divine power that lives within each one of us, and all of creation. We don’t have to know how something is going to happen, just that we can help make it happen. People who make things happen and use their own power to do so do not sit back and wait for good luck or for obstacles to move. They get started anyway. They move and make the obstacles turn into opportunities. It is important though, to reflect and listen to our inner guidance. We want to be sure that we are not acting with unkind or selfish intentions. We also need to realize that sometimes, not acting can also contribute so someone being hurt. Willpower must always be accompanied by sensitively listening to our higher guidance within – our inner voice. Sometimes, doing what is right and good is not easy, and others will stand against us. But through our willpower we can stand tall in the face of fear and hate and with courage continue to do what is right.
Saint Augustine is quoted “Will is to grace, as the horse is to the rider.” Grace means the power of love that flows through the universe. When we open our hearts to possibilities we can’t see, then grace can flow through our lives more strongly. The use of our will with an open heart combined with divine grace or power is a combination that can accomplish amazing things — like a horse (our will) and rider (divine power) working together to win a race. We will use the story of Harriett Tubman to discuss how obstacles don’t have to stop us from accomplishing great things especially when you allow the grace of God to help us.
Story: Harriet Tubman’s Willpower
In the year 1820, almost all black people in the United States were slaves. Slaves had no rights; they were owned by another person and had no choices about their lives. Harriet Tubman was born to parents who were slaves, and that meant Harriet was a slave too. Harriet’s mother and father could not protect her from the cruelties of slavery, and she was forced to work hard from a very young age. She took care of babies and did work in the master’s house and out in the fields. Even as a little child, she was sent out in the winter to check muskrat traps. Muskrats are large rodents that live in underwater dens and were trapped for their fur. Harriet had to walk waist-deep into freezing water and retrieve the dead muskrats.
Although she never learned to read or write, Harriet was smart and was always listening, watching, and learning. She was never a slave in her heart and never accepted that she was unworthy because she was black or because she was a girl. She learned to pad herself with extra clothing for protection during frequent beatings. When Harriet was about eleven years old, she boldly refused an order from a white man to help stop his runaway slave. Instead, she stood back and let the slave run by her. The man angrily threw a heavy metal weight after the runaway, and it hit Harriet in the head. The weight broke Harriet’s skull and almost killed her. Unfortunately, this kind of cruelty to slaves was not uncommon, and Harriet wasn’t even given medical care. She recovered, but she suffered for the rest of her life with pain, seizures, and blackouts as a result of the injury.
She couldn’t read, but she was told stories from the Bible, and Harriet had a deep inner life of prayer. She always tried to follow the guidance she felt came from God, and everyone who knew her said she showed amazing inner strength and appeared to be fearless. After years of struggle and thinking about being free, Harriet heard she was to be sold and taken further south, where freedom would be impossible to find. She prayed and planned an escape. She took two of her brothers with her, but her brothers turned back. It was too frightening to be out in the dark woods, possibly getting lost, shot, or recaptured. Harriet didn’t want to give up, but she went back with them. Then, Harriet prayed and planned again — she wouldn’t let anything stop her. The second time she went alone; traveling almost a hundred miles to Pennsylvania, where blacks were free.
She could have stayed in Pennsylvania and lived a safe life, but Harriet felt she had to help others escape a life of slavery. So, instead of staying, she went back to the South and led others to freedom. She could have been caught and killed or sold and taken far away, but she went anyway. Harriet made nineteen dangerous trips to the South and brought many of her family and friends and even strangers to a new life where they were no longer slaves. Harriet used all her courage and willpower to make the trips. There were rewards given to people who turned in runaway slaves, and anyone willing to help had to do it in secret. The people and secret places that were used to get slaves to freedom were called the Underground Railroad, and Harriet was called a conductor. Harriet often disguised herself as a man or an old person so she and her passengers would not get caught. She gave babies medicine so they would go to sleep and not cry while they were hiding. If anyone wanted to give up and go back she refused to let them go. A slave who went back would be beaten or killed and forced to give away secret information that would endanger others.
Every trip was a double risk for Harriet because she had to travel to the people who wanted help and then travel back to the North with them. There were many angry slave owners who would have killed her for what she was doing. Yet, Harriet never gave up and never lost one passenger. Her most important trip was going back to her former home and getting her parents to come north with her. They lived the rest of their lives in Canada, where they had the joy of knowing freedom.
Harriet was a small, uneducated black woman who lived during a time when black people could be bought and sold, and women of any race had very few rights. She had a lifelong debilitating illness that would have kept most people from even leaving their home. She was always poor and had to work hard every day just to survive. Yet, during Harriet’s long life of ninety-three years, she repeatedly proved that by applying willpower in the right direction, with determination and an open heart, there are unlimited possibilities. Her determination to do what was right and help others was an inspiration to slaves and those who were free, to women and men, to those in the North and South, to people of every race and color, and to generations who came after her.
*Lesson from A JOYFUL PATH: Spiritual Curriculum for Young Hearts and Minds, Year 1 of the Inner Wisdom Series