The Myth of Powerlessness
“And what do you expect me to do about it?”
“Well, whatcha gonna do, right?”
“That’s just the way of the world.”
“There’s just no help for it.”
“That’s just the way it goes.”
“You can’t fight City Hall.”
“I’m only one person.”
When you hear these statements in reaction to social conditions or an act of government, you are hearing the myth of powerlessness at work. We have come to feel that major social problems are too large for us, that we, as individuals, lack sufficient power to implement their solutions.
You are not powerless; in fact, you are immensely more powerful than you consciously realize.
Please notice my use of the word “consciously” there. Subconsciously, we know exactly how powerful we are. But the conscious portion of our minds is “in the drivers seat”, so to speak, and it hasn’t yet caught on to the fact. Actually, there are many ideas held by our subconscious minds that contradict those we hold consciously. This results in the two areas of our mind often working at cross purposes, and in inconsistent and ineffective actions. Harmony between the conscious and subconscious is one of the most desirable states of being one could hope to attain. The resolution of internal conflict would naturally eliminate the external conflicts from which we suffer as a society. This writing is my contribution to the elimination of internal conflicts. It aims to make you more aware of certain false ideas held by one or the other level of consciousness.
We don’t know that we’re powerful partly because we have a narrow definition and inadequate understanding of what “power” is. We don’t recognize many of our exercises of power for what they are.
Power is simply this: the ability to effect change in the world. I know that statement seems like a self-evident overgeneralization, but it isn’t. It’s a complete definition, for our purposes. That it doesn’t seem so exposes the first reason that we are unaware of our own power, namely that we only recognize some types of power as power. Our definition of power is unrealistically narrow, our understanding of it inadequate.
When we describe someone as “powerful”, we almost always mean that he has the ability to immediately effect major change in the world according to his conscious will and overriding any opposition to it. That is the addition of four qualifiers to the definition given above, each restricting the meaning of power to a more specific form. This narrower definition, which really just describes one type of power, is the one we use almost exclusively. Think about it: whom do we describe as powerful? Of whom are we speaking when we use phrases like “the people in power” or “the powers that be”?
A powerful CEO can send out a memo instituting a policy change that affects the operation of his company in a major way, and his employees will immediately begin working in accordance with his will, knowing they cannot practically oppose it. In just the same way, a powerful political figure -- let’s say, the President -- can issue an Executive Order, effective immediately upon his signing it, expressing his will that certain activities be criminalized in a major way, and the police will begin enforcing it without protest or opposition. For a fictional example, a powerful wizard can chant a spell and immediately cause a major exception to the laws of physics by levitating an elephant, by the power of his will, overriding the normal opposition of gravity which would keep the elephant rooted firmly to the ground.
Here I’m going to borrow two terms from a book I read a long time ago that have stuck with me ever since, because they’re succinct and self-explanatory, and immediately reveal an important dichotomy that few of us ever recognize: power-over and power-with. These two forms of power are opposites, like yang and yin, and it’s a safe bet that most of you reading this right now have a much clearer understanding of what is meant by the first term than the second.
Power-over is the triumph of one will over others, it is coercion by violence or the threat of violence, and its form of organization is heirarchy. We understand it well because our world has operated according to this principle for as long as we can remember. That’s why, when we hear the word power, we automatically assume it to be of this kind. It’s all we know!
Power-with is everything that power-over is not. It is cooperative rather than coercive, and its form of organization is lateral rather than heirarchical; it forms decentralized networks. Power-over is A GREAT BLAZING FIRE, BRIGHT AND LOUD, INSTANTLY INCINERATING EVERYTHING IN ITS PATH! Power-with is subtle rather than overt, inconspicuous rather than dazzling, gradual rather than instantaneous, and, most importantly, constructive rather than destructive. Power-with is a heated stone, slowly radiating gentle warmth, which can be used to sustain life through a winter’s night. But it is still power, and it is equally as effective.
Like that stone, we all continuously radiate power. Every action we take, including speaking, has an effect on the world. We’ve gotten so close to understanding this that we even have a name for it: the “butterfly effect” -- a term used in chaos theory to encapsulate the idea that a tiny change in conditions at one place and time can lead to a massively changed outcome at another place and time. We pay lip service to the concept of power-with but we don’t take it seriously, as we do power-over. We think of the butterfly effect as the pointless speculation of lofty scientists rather than as a practical method for achieving our goals.
Because of this, our use of power is seriously imbalanced. When we use our power consciously, deliberately, we do it almost exclusively in the form of power-over; almost all our energy expenditures of a power-with nature happen unconsciously, reflexively. Another truth that many of us repeat verbally but don’t take seriously enough is that imbalance of any kind has negative consequences. If you need this idea reinforced, look to Nature. Without man’s intervention, the natural world effortlessly maintains itself, every part in balance with every other. Nature is a perfect system, something that man cannot come close to claiming as an achievement and never will until he internalizes the principle of balance.
The failure to internalize what we learn on a conscious level -- and its inverse, the internalization of things we know consciously to be untrue -- are the source of many of our debilitating inner conflicts. On a conscious level, we have learned much about life and about ourselves in recent decades, but we haven’t yet accepted the new information, let it sink in deep to where it will naturally direct our thoughts and actions. There is an important lesson to be learned about ourselves in this. We’re reluctant to internalize some information precisely because it will change our thoughts and actions. Acceptance of recent discoveries will break many of the bad habits to which we’ve become attached; it will push us out of our comfortable rut. Subconsciously, we recognize the responsibility that comes with the empowerment new information and expanded awareness provide. (If you want to see a good treatment of the relationship between power and responsibility, watch the movie Bruce Almighty.)
In many ways I see the human race right now as being late in an adolescent phase. We’ve just discovered what it means to be an “adult” species and know that we must eventually cross the threshhold into maturity, but we’re hesitating to take that step, reluctant to take on the responsibility inherent in exercising power.
Another reason we fail to perceive power-with is our poor understanding of the relationship between the individual and the group. We are used to making statements about groups -- of which this very book is mostly comprised -- but we take the existence of the group too literally. In reality, there are no groups, there are only individuals. Grouping is simply mental classification, a shortcut we take in our thinking. Can you measure the height of “the Republicans”? Of course not, but you can measure the height of any individual who identifies himself as a Republican. This is not useless, abstract nitpicking. Our confusion of abstractions with reality is another root cause of personal and collective suffering. Pick any major social problem; it really isn’t a problem, it’s a cumulative effect. Groups can’t do anything. Only individuals can. The power of the group is the power of the individual, and we would benefit greatly from retaining that thought in our consciousness until it becomes a habitual factor in our thinking.
We also fail to recognize power-with because of the differing speed at which we and it operate. No one can deny that the pace of our lives has increased in the past two centuries, and this has been one of our greatest mistakes. Our ability to travel faster, to communicate faster, and to manufacture faster tempts us with the promise of “instant gratification”, and giving in to that temptation has stunted our maturity.
We are presented with fewer opportunities and less incentive to acquire patience than we once were. The most recent generations don’t even perceive patience as having any value, and this retards their development greatly. They don’t realize that some concepts (such as power-with) are too complex to be fully explained and rightly understood in a single sound-bite. The deeper implications and long-term ramifications of a subject are lost on them. The “ADD generation”, as I call them, remain ignorant of many of life’s valuable lessons and vital truths. Society is reaping the consequences of such short-sighted thinking as the ones limited to it are gradually assimilated into positions of leadership.
With the shortened lengths of time necessary for so many activities came a shortened awareness of the scope of time. We focus on current trends and ignore our history. One of the effects of this is that we have become less able to trace the slower outcomes of power-with back to the individual actions that precipitated them. Because we don’t immediately see the results of our “insignificant little” actions, we think that those actions have no consequences at all. This misperception must be corrected.
Our parents understood the relationship of the individual to the group better than we do. (Or maybe your grandparents, if you’re young enough.) Perhaps some of you encountered this rebuttal of a seemingly small social impropriety, such as littering, when you were children: “What would happen if everyone did that?” What, indeed? If masses of people indiscriminately throw their trash on the ground, our world will become a trash heap that no one will want to live in. But again, masses can’t do or not do anything. Only individuals can. So how can we maintain a liveable environment and prevent littering?
We could exercise this power -- effect this change in the world -- in two different ways: by power-over or by power-with. The power-over solution is to pass a law forbidding littering, which will be enacted by those at the top of the heirarchy and enforced upon those in the lower levels. We know by experience that this is inefficient, costly, and destructive. How much time, money, and energy is wasted by policemen in issuing citations and by the courts in collecting fines? How much time, money, and energy is spent by the individual to appear in court and pay the fine, or to evade the court and then be sequestered in a jail? And how effective has this strategy been? How much trash still litters the places where people congregate?
The power-with solution is to disseminate awareness of the individual’s power to affect the cleanliness of his environment, to appeal to his desire for sanitary and attractive public areas. An example of this is the signs we see posted encouraging people to put their trash in the bins designated just for that purpose. (These signs should be reinforced by peer pressure -- meaning that in public we should discourage others from littering. Why that doesn’t often happen is a subject I’ll save my angry ranting about for another time.) This solution is inexpensive, quickly implemented, and non-destructive to people’s lives. And it is more effective than is immediately obvious. Do you think that corporations, motivated by profit and obssessed with the “bottom line”, would continue plastering up signs and erecting billboards for their products if that practice had not been proven effective years ago?
The understanding we need to reach is this: when there is a specific, immediate, individual need or issue at hand, a small exercise of direct power (power-over) may be the best solution, but group needs are best fulfilled and mass effects are better achieved by the use of indirect, lateral power (power-with).
We are conditioned to think of our individual contribution to social issues as weak and insignificant. In our impatience we bemoan our inability to single-handedly effect immediate, sweeping change. Our attitude is, quite frankly, childish and self-defeating. But we mustn’t be too harsh on ourselves; we can’t take sole credit for it, because the development of this attitude has been encouraged every step of the way by the people at the top of the power heirarchy into which we were born and in which we still live. It is in these oligarchs’ best interest that we remain unaware of the power we have at our disposal, because it would completely disrupt the system of power-over in which they enjoy every advantage at society’s expense. Their greatest fear is that you will start perceiving the awesome power inherent in carrying that empty soda bottle an extra block, to the nearest trash bin. Or giving one dollar to one person in need. Or just this once, choosing to spend a little more for what you need at a local business, thereby withdrawing a few dollars of support from the megalithic corporations profiting from foreign sweatshop labor.
Each one of us is a point on the feedback loop, a conduit into which and from which power flows. Each one of us is an intersection in the great web of reality, and our vibration is felt throughout. As Anjezë Bojaxhiu said, “What we do is less than a drop in the ocean. But if it were missing, the ocean would lack something.” You are no less vital an aspect of reality than anyone or anything else, and your thoughts, your feelings, your actions, and your very existence are powerful forces. If you want to be able to use those forces to change your life and the world around you, you must recondition your mind to recognize the power in every action you take.
(To be continued...)