It’s easy to feel powerless these days. So much is changing. Life can seem too big, too complex, and out of control.
This sense of powerlessness fosters hopelessness, helplessness, depression, anxiety, and apathy. We think there’s no point in doing anything, since it won’t fix everything. In reality, no one has the power to change the world by themselves, even Bill Gates. It’s an illusion that we have no power at all, though. Each of us has some area in which we can have an impact.
To rediscover our sense of power in the world, it helps to look at one aspect of how power works. There are four dynamics of power between two people: I have power and you don’t, you have power and I don’t, neither of us has power, or both of us has power.
We see the results all around us of the power imbalance when one or the other has power: The assumption that richer people are smarter and more capable than those with less money, regardless of whether the rich people were born into wealth or had a lucky break. Bosses who demand more work are often exploiting a power imbalance, exhorting their underlings to put in sixty hours a week or more.
When neither of us owns our power, it creates a vacuum into which a third party is attracted to wield power over both of us. Many of us have been involved in a work situation where a coworker exerts undue influence when the boss is unwilling to act.
We can group these first three types of interactions as examples of power-over. When one person (or group) has more power than the other, there is a subtle or blatant perception that the one with power is better than the other – smarter, more capable, more deserving, even more blessed by God. This seldom ends well. Power imbalances leave the less-powerful one feeling exploited and resentful, so conflicts inevitably arise.
Power-over scenarios are the basis for the saying “power corrupts”: those with power over others, or who assume power over others, begin to feel entitled, even obliged, to run the lives of others and ignore their desires.
The fourth dynamic, power-with, has more potential for helping us get along. Power-with is based on mutual respect. It acknowledges that we all bring skills, ideas, and energy to a situation. Using that power together brings more creativity to solving problems, creating better systems, and making positive changes in our world.
This is not to say that there should be no leaders, no hierarchy, and no distribution of tasks. It just means that we can all be responsible for bringing respect to those around us, regardless of the structure. I may lead in one area and you in another. And we can combine our power and work together to accomplish changes that will foster a well-functioning community. Shared power breeds cooperation and synergy.
It’s important that we recognize and use the power that we have. Each of us can make a difference. When frustrated with a national or international issue, we can channel that energy into addressing a local example of the same issue. Small actions empower us and empower others who see our behavior. Do something small and non-violent to promote the kinds of changes you’d like to see made on a larger scale. Have conversations. Share your concerns. Vote.
Power dynamics are much more complex than this model, but as we use well the power we do have, it will tend to increase our actual power to get along better.