Noodling

Power

The most damaging effect of being beaten up was the realization, several days later, that almost any man, even a fairly unfit one, could do the same. Physical power, though base and less meaningful than emotional or spiritual power, still has the ability to trump other powers. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs points this out elegantly. Without the bottom rung- the upper structure collapses. Physical health is the basis for any other kind of growth, physical requirements- food, shelter, safety, are mandatory before art or beauty or any of the higher, “closer to God” pursuits can be undertaken.

I’m fairly strong, physically, above average for a woman, but just by virtue of being a woman, am significantly less strong than a below average man. It made me angry for a while at the sheer injustice, and then afraid before I found some peace with it over the intervening years, but the reality is, pretty much any man, at any time, could beat the snot out of me if The Rules (as enforced mostly by other men) didn’t prevent him. Which is not to say I believe most or even many men want to beat me up. It’s just the relative powerlessness that gets to me.

I believe all people are of equal worth. No one life is worth any more than another, despite huge disparity in power. Some people are born with tremendous power, others with almost none. Men are, on average, stronger than women. Whites are, on average, wealthier than blacks. This is the unequal distribution of power. It is not inherently immoral. The tricky thing about power imbalances though, is that while they are always very obvious to the less powerful, they can be almost invisible to those with the upper hand. This is why, in my observation, Libertarians are almost all white, male and from middle to upper-middle class families. I think one of the jobs of civilization and by extension government is to affirm the basic equality of human worth and to protect the weak from the abuse of the strong. I do not believe it is the responsibility of the government to eliminate power inequalities even if it were possible to do so, but I do believe that it might be possible to keep those with power from using it to co-opt the lesser power of the weak.

It is difficult to imagine women – even healthy, fit, non-pregnant women ever being as physically strong as men. It is difficult to imagine a level educational playing field. Even when those with dominate power are sensitive to the inequality and refrain from using their superior power coercively, the potential for abuse exists and no amount of nobly motivated political correctness will hide nor correct the inequalities. And as long as the less powerful know that potential exists they will feel at least some vulnerability, some exploitation from the powerful. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that “the most marvelous human accomplishment is to refrain from abusing one’s privileges.” Having power means having power over others, to limit their choices, to direct their energy, to employ their power in your own service.

I grew up fairly privileged. White, middle class well educated with the liberal tendency to apologize for my power. Reluctant to use my power because it seemed unearned, unfair that I had so much when so many had so little, I squandered much of it. I made choices that did not maximize my power, that let some of it seep away. My husband, by contrast, began life with relatively less power and as a result feels completely entitled to all the benefits of his successes. He does not feel lucky, he feels duly rewarded. He has worked hard to achieve what he has earned and earnestly believes he should be allowed to keep what he has created.

Time and energy are stored as power. There are a zillion different ways to store energy as power and largely endless capacity to stockpile it. Of course, as with anything, chaos will pull more heavily on a more complex system and vast reserves of power are prey to parasites and thieves who will try to siphon off the resources of the powerful by exploiting weakness or inattention. Amass too much power and you’ll be targeted by the envious and disenfranchised. Amass too much power and it will become increasingly difficult to wield delicately, to avoid exploiting those with less, by the sheer force of gravity that a huge power exerts on fragile ones. This was the condition of my country. We were disproportionately powerful and were exploitive only by being. After 9/11 we began to deliberately flex our power and have chosen, out of anger, to use our power now to order the world as it pleases us. This will not be possible.

But we are learning that there is a power that can answer ours. That power that comes from not being afraid. If you can confront a person of superior power without fear, then they have lost their power over you. If you don’t fear death or pain or deprivation. If you don’t fear madness or hatred, you have tremendous power. Those with absolute faith in God have this power, as do those with nothing to lose.

I do not admire the rebels who are killing American soldiers in Iraq, but I wonder if there is something to learn from them. In the face of the greatest massed power in the history of the world, they are unafraid. Or they are afraid, but willing. I don’t envy their fear mastery. I don’t want the courage of the fanatic. But what other triumph is there? I rationalize my fears. I reassure myself with statistics and probabilities, but they only quiet my fear, they do not defeat it. I am human. I am afraid. Perhaps I shall always be afraid. But I am also many other things. I am curious and loving, I am hopeful and learning. Buddha says that it “is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.”

I know that we can acculturate men to be protectors not predators, that we can train ourselves, down almost to the base of Maslow’s pyramid, to use our power in heroism and sacrifice, that we can use our higher minds to choose love over fear. The Bible tells us that faith, hope and love endure, and that the greatest of those is love and I am grateful, because I do not have faith. Bertrand Russell, in his pivotal “Why I Am Not A Christian” wrote:

Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.

He puts his faith in Thought, as perhaps I do, which would explain why I fear madness more than death. Maybe you never conquer fear. Maybe it abides as hope and love do, maybe even without faith that love and hope will be enough, I put my faith in our collective human ability to choose, to access logic and emotion, reason and passion, to select a course that increases the quality of life for the greatest number of people. I believe the higher mind is the taste of God in us. The uniquely human ability to reason, to put space between stimulus and reaction, to direct our own evolution- this is God in us. In this god I have faith. This god I can serve.

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