It seems to me that power exists on a continuum. On one end is power-from-within which we all possess to varying degrees, and at the other there is power-over. The stations between these are complex, as we learn to negotiate with others in the universe. No doubt, students of political science, sociology and psychology will have more refined descriptions than the following which comes mostly from my observations.
I see power-from-within arising from thoughts, feelings, imagination, learned skills, the arts and self-discipline. Words like express, share, understand, design, empathize, inspire, indicate to me a power-from-within.
Power-over resides in social position and opportunity. Parents have power over their children, teachers over their students, managers over employees, police officers over city streets, etc. Words like teach, enforce, control, limit, protect, withhold, give, take, coerce, extract – indicate power-over.
Power-over is not necessarily an abuse of power, and power-from-within is not always harmless. A functioning civil society requires a sophisticated awareness of how and where power is expressed or used for the greater good. As we become more mature we are more empathic and conscious of the way we use our power and the effect it has on others. We learn to be more specific in dealing with conflict seeking outcomes that satisfy all.
When societies become stressed, it’s easy to fall for a quick fix, dismissing and discrediting the complex structures that have taken centuries to evolve. The default quick fix focuses on “who is to blame”. Nature becomes a menace to be controlled. Diversity intolerable.
When meaningful debate is discouraged and replaced with slogans and propaganda, the human conscience loses its voice. The individual feeling powerless may side with hard-line political movements for a spurious sense of power by association and a false confidence.
When power-from-within no longer dialogues with power-over, as in times of war, power becomes a misanthropic ritual marching towards an ever greater contempt for life. It is estimated that between 136 to 148 million deaths occurred through wars and conflicts in the 20th century. This year alone there have been nearly 50,000 fatalities due to conflict.
However, there is no indication among my neighbours, friends and peers that suggests we want to murder others. So what is the cause of war?
Retired minister, Rev. John Alexie Crane, in his sermon on Human Nature and War asks us to look more closely “at the most crucial of war’s causes, namely, the actions and ambitions of the alpha males who continue to hold positions of leadership in the nations of the world.” Leaders who have been led to believe by their supporters, that their power is all there is and they alone are responsible for saving the world.
How does power-from-within meet the alpha ego?
When we stop asking “what is wrong with the world”, and ask instead “how can we build a livable one?” For all the territory and wealth that has been fought over and for all the lives lost and being lost, the very least we can do is to learn how power works for and against life – examples are everywhere.
Power-from-within meets the centre of the continuum in community before it reaches a critical mass where the conscience reminds the discouraged mind that it can’t afford to shut up.
(First published in The Flying Shingle, August 4, 2014)