Sunday, June 22, 2008

Thoughts on Power

My good blogger friend Sandra sent me on this morning's intellectual, reflective journey by explaining her definition of power. Our conversation, I am sure, will continue over on her blog, but since I am so windy, I knew I would have to post more of my own thoughts here rather than clutter up her site.

College instructors usually tell students writing definition essays not to begin with, "Webster's Dictionary defines (insert word here) as..." While I'm not a proponent of cliches, I think if we do not start with at least denotation, we cannot arrive at global or personal connotations. So bear with me as I once again use Dictionary.com as both a grounding and leaping point. Keep in mind there are 26 entries under "power," but I limit my ramblings to the following:

Power –noun
1. ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something.
2. political or national strength: the balance of power in Europe.
3. great or marked ability to do or act; strength; might; force.
4. the possession of control or command over others; authority; ascendancy: power over men's minds.
5. political ascendancy or control in the government of a country, state, etc.: They attained power by overthrowing the legal government.
7. delegated authority; authority granted to a person or persons in a particular office or capacity: the powers of the president.
9. a person or thing that possesses or exercises authority or influence.

For once, I defer to the primary definition as my own: the ability to accomplish something. Accomplishing can be something as simple as completing a project or as complex as reaching long-term goals. These are the components of personal empowerment in the tertiary sense, to equip with an ability. When we invest in ourselves, we give ourselves a mechanism to "do" and to complete.

Completion has always been an active priority in my life. I am goal driven: I have both long-term and short-term goals. Whether it be cleaning up the kitchen or raising the children to be productive members of society, goals are important. When I don't meet my goals, I am disappointed. Whenever I have failed to meet my own goals, I am disappointed. However, in failing, I also see why I could not reach them. Sometimes I set unrealistic goals for myself, my reach exceeding my grasp so far, I would have to be a hundred feet tall to ever skim its fingertips. One of my goals, then, has become to set more reachable goals for myself. These are daily practices requiring tremendous amounts of mental energy and the humility to accept the "things I cannot change."

Humility is a sacred and necessary element of power. Without it, overweening pride can step in and trip us when we least need to be tripped. Pride detracts from true power. The "I can do it" turns to "I'm so great, I can do anything," a mentality that certainly has its place but isn't useful in positive affirmations which require specifics: "I know I can get this closet clean in under three hours if I put my mind to it."

Appropriate, productive feelings of personal empowerment can lead to greater things: "My house is relatively clean (short-term goal), the kids are doing pretty well in school (long term goal), so I have time to speak at the public meeting on Tuesday (short term goal) and improve my public speaking skills at the same time (long-term goal)."

Public speaking in meetings can lead to other venues and for some, the definition in number 7, public office where the integrity of personal empowerment and goals impacts large populations. Numbers 4 and 5 describe power in commonly seen ugliness--the need to control people's minds, thinking, lives, and governments through political ambition, greed, disregard to others' needs, ego, and pride. The seven deadly sins have field days when these definitions take root in those who are elected to serve and protect the people.

Definition number 9, a person or entity that can influence people, can also be used in the positive or negative. We see leaders use their power to convince others to do the wrong thing; we see corporations use campaign funds to get their candidates of choice elected with the realistic hope that their candidates will support their money-making ventures. And we see individuals try to control others' minds and thoughts through their interactions and relationships.

Real power in the sense of number 9, however, is not the same as control. It is easy to instill fear or to bribe in order to influence. It is easy to punish or lie or threaten to push one's own agenda. It is much more difficult to lead by positive example, wield power through justice, intelligence and compassion, and to find solutions like the greatest leaders of our times: Rev. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Buddha, Jesus and countless others who have used power to serve. These are the people who make number 2 possible, the ability to create a true national power.

There are too many people who hold the title "Honorable" or "Justice" or "Reverend" who use power and authority as mechanisms for control and personal gain, for hatred and for destruction. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish these people from the simply unpopular who may be the minority trying to do the right thing through service. Remember, for example, Martin Luther King was killed in spite of his positive influence and personal integrity.

Our sense of power is derived partially from our role models: what choices do they make? Why do they make these choices? Are they choices that help the many or serve the few? In election times, especially, we need to be able to sort out these complicated questions.

Everyone has personal power, the power to achieve, too much of it untapped. I wish to use my own to the fullest extent, whatever that may be or not be. Thank, you Sandra, for reminding me the route for doing so.
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