The concept of power – where it lives, who ‘owns’ it, what form it takes, where it is expressed or repressed – began to interest me during my post-grad degree. Before that I’d experienced power struggles, but didn’t have the words – or the personal power ‘muscle’ – to understand or participate in them. After my post-graduate education, where we read art and creativity and culture through a Marxist lens, I was better able to explore and explain how power worked, at least in a larger cultural context. My personal power muscles were still weak; available to me but needing a proper warm up and a few practice runs before I started to use them fully.
But first – what is power? Or a better question: what is your immediate response to the word ‘power’? For those of us who go against the grain of our current Western economic paradigm, perhaps it’s fear, concern or worry. Perhaps it’s as dramatic as repulsion. Perhaps it’s rage as you leap to the defence of the powerless in the rebellion playing out in your mind.
Our immediate responses to words give us clues as to what we have learnt about a particular concept. In many cases, our response to the word ‘power’ indicates we have learnt that power is something to be afraid of. It’s bad, or it’s wrong; it has a moral dimension. In the words of a friend: “Why would anyone even want power?”, as if power was a disease.
Yet power is not inherently good or bad. Definitions of power in English include ‘the ability to do or act’, ‘capability’ or as a verb, ‘to make powerful’, ‘to supply with means of power’. Power is ability and capability for action. To be powerful means you are full of the ability and capability to take action.
Perhaps, then, our immediate repulsive response to the word is less about the meaning and more about the examples we have in our world of power and powerful people. Perhaps it’s not the idea, but the intention behind power that stirs up our fear and our anger. Perhaps part of the repulsion is a response to a deeper and more painful recognition: that we do not feel able or capable of action. We do not feel powerful. We do not have power.
Bad bosses. Bullying managers. Insensitive leaders. Dictatorial presidents. In almost every social arena we see examples of power being wielded violently, through actions, words, emotions and legislation. We see the ‘ability and capability to act’ being used to act in ways that go against empathy, love, connection, kindness, that go against the principles which many of us choose to live our lives by. Power itself becomes violent, malevolent, inhumane – even evil.
At the same time, our personal power is reduced through actions, words, emotions and legislation wielded with malintent. From emotional bullying in the workplace to denying voting rights to citizens in a democracy, each instance of power being used with malicious intent degrades our concept of power, leading us further away from it, and reduces our personal power as an individual, partner, employee, friend or member of society.
We feel powerless because, in using their ‘ability and capability to act’ with hurtful intentions, specific people or groups of people simultaneously reduce our own ‘ability and capability to act’ and make the idea of having and holding power less appealing.
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”Carl Sagan
In June 1977, a woman called Wangari Maathai led a crowd of individuals through Nairobi, Kenya, to a park on the outskirts of the city. There, she and other volunteers planted seven trees. Just under three decades later, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Alongside her work in the Green Belt Movement, Maathai was an active politician in Kenya, campaigning for democracy under the authoritarian rule of the 1990s and successfully bringing together opposition parties as the National Rainbow Coalition in the early 2000s. Her organisation, the Green Belt Movement, has since planted over 50 million trees and trained thousands of individuals in trades which preserve the environment and combat poverty.
From seven seeds, Maathai changed a nation. This is an example of power we can cherish – and learn from.
“We all need to work hard to make a difference in our neighborhoods, regions, and countries, and in the world as a whole. That means making sure we work hard, collaborate with each other, and make ourselves better agents to change.”Wangari Maathai
Our world and the lens through which we perceive the world – our media – is full of examples of power wielded without regard for principles many of us agree on: kindness, love, empathy, fairness. The examples of power used in service to those principles are less visible, less apparent, quieter and rumbling along steadily.
If we wish to reclaim our power, exercise that personal power muscle and respond positively to the concept of power, finding examples of power used in service to those principles is key. Without examples, how do we know it can be done?
Perhaps the idea of reclaiming personal power feels unpleasant to you – even still repulsive. Perhaps you believe it’s impossible in a complex world where we have so many rules and regulations, so many different influences on our life, so little choice or free will. This is reasonable. Our lives are overwhelmed with information, our reading habits saturated with spectacular media. Timothy Snyder, talking about TV news but similarly applicable to social media, says:
“Everything happens fast, but nothing actually happens. Each story on televised news is “breaking” until it is displaced by the next one. So we are hit by wave upon wave but never see the ocean.”
Example after example of power being used maliciously, incompetently, unfairly, bombards us like these waves. The effort in reclaiming personal power feels simply too much.
But it doesn’t need to. Wangari Maathai didn’t start out by introducing democracy to her nation and winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
She started with just seven seeds.
The process of reclaiming our own power, exercising that personal power muscle, is painful. It’s hard work and requires us to let go of some of the things our ego would have us believe about ourselves: that we are all-powerful, all-influential, able to control everyone and everything – and that we should. When we, naturally, aren’t able to influence or control literally everyone and everything, we might feel disappointed, that we’ve let ourselves down, that we haven’t changed the world overnight.
Yet, in the words of Anodea Judith:
“Power, like any muscle in the body, must be developed consciously. … most powerlessness is the result of ignorance about how to behave effectively.”
Rather than consciously develop our power muscle, we’re more likely to remain ignorant and find ways to behave ineffectively, giving our time, energy and power to things we can neither control nor influence – but which lie within our circle of things we feel we should be able to control or influence.
Before we start with seven seeds, we need to start with one. One seed, one tree, one “action of power”. One seed to start with focuses on establishing a difference between what we can’t and what we can control. If we know what we can control – and it really is much less than we like to think – we can practice exercising our power muscles in these areas.
Stephen Covey introduced a ‘circles’ tool to the world: the Circle of Concern vs the Circle of Influence. In the Circle of Concern is everything you are worried about: the weather, finances, football results, kids’ grades, partner’s behaviour, your health, your job, politics – everything. Inside this circle is the Circle of Influence containing the things you can actually, well, influence: things you can do something about. Covey argues that inhabiting and acting on your personal power in your Circle of Influence brings about true change: “by working on ourselves instead of worrying about conditions, we [are] able to influence the conditions.”
What other seeds can we begin to plant in this effort to reclaim power? Information overload causes us to become responsive, reacting to new ideas and being shaped by them before we have a chance to work out whether or not it’s something we want to know about. Our ‘ability and capability to act’ in service of what we believe to be right diminishes simply because all our power and energy is taken up in the effort it takes to not fall over when being hit by “wave upon wave” of information. Another seed therefore might be to take advice from Timothy Snyder and “Make an effort to step away from the internet”. He argues:
“…[defining] the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli.”
Additionally, defining the shape and significance of ourselves and our power is equally challenging when we’re in the suffocating warmth of Instagram or the Daily Mail’s ‘sidebar of shame’. Going elsewhere, giving our minds space, allows us to access and practise our ‘ability and capability to act’. As Judith says, “When we have no room to breathe, our power is limited.” Taking space to breathe, physically and metaphorically, gives that personal power muscle an opportunity to be used in service of something kinder than purely reacting.
And stepping into books, conversation or even the more interesting bits of the Internet (ever been sucked into a Wikipedia hole?) generates a seed in itself: finding out about examples of power wielded in service to humanitarian principles that are perhaps not sexy enough, not controversial enough or not spectacular enough to warrant media coverage. Such as Dr. James W. Pennebaker, psychology professor and founder of Wordwatchers, a research project and website which counts and categorises the language of politicians to help us better understand their “personalities, motives, emotions and inner selves”.
Perhaps you are reading this with a sense, still, of resisting the idea of reclaiming power. Perhaps it feels too late or you feel too lazy. Perhaps seven seeds, even one seed, feels too challenging.
In the creative process – the act of creating, generating, dreaming up and bringing to life – power is a crucial pit stop on the path of liberation. We can have all the ideas in the world, all the drive and determination, but if we feel powerless or if we refuse to use our power to act, to turn dreams into reality, we’ll feel stifled and impotent. We will create things then hide them away. Or we won’t create them at all. The half-finished project is the indicator of personal power used ineffectively – either the project wasn’t the right one to start with, or our ‘ability and capability to act’ gave up half-way through.
“Our expression turns in on itself, often in anger and self-criticism, which wears us down further. Fire takes fuel to burn, and in a closed system, the fuel eventually burns up.”Anodea Judith
My personal journey with power has fluctuated between this state, ignorant of my personal power and expressing anger at myself, and a dramatic, external over-exertion of power. Judith draws a distinction between ‘power over’ and ‘power to’. I used my own power as ‘power over’. I took positive actions – such as looking after others, helping, supporting them – all coming from a negative intention: to feel in control, to dominate or control others, for fear of not being needed.
I believe our fear of power is not a fear of ourselves and the power we inherently hold, but a fear of what we might become if we embody and use that power fully. Will we be the bad boss, the bullying manager? Will we become the bad guys, like the ‘powerful people’ we see on TV behaving in ways we deem immoral? Will our shadow side drive us to hurt others, control others, in the name of power? The idiom states ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Yet John Steinbeck said, “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.” If we are able to recognise our personal power, use it effectively, and not live in fear of its loss – knowing that it cannot be taken away without our consent – power will not corrupt us; it will become an enthusing, cheerleading stopping point on the liberating path.
Flight of the Hummingbird is a myth found in many cultures where this tiny and beautiful bird is seen regularly. In the telling I have, a forest catches fires. All the animals living in the forest run for their lives, out into the cool air, moaning and crying. Hovering above them, the hummingbird flies quickly to a nearby river, picks up a bead of water in her beak, flies through the smoke and drops it onto the fire. The animals are wailing and gnashing their teeth, and the hummingbird flies back to the river, picks up a bead of water, and drops it onto the flames. The hummingbird continues to fly back and forth, back and forth, the animals yelling and screaming about their poor lot, until eventually the bear shouts up at her: “Hey, Hummingbird! What do you think you’re doing?”.
And the hummingbird replies: “I am doing what I can”.
One bead of water.
One small seed.
This is all it takes to remember our power.
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Watch my interview with Harry May-Bedell, performer and writer, on his journey with Power.