We are constantly bombarded by combinations of information, emergencies, requests to take sides. Violence in the Capitol may take the cake for the moment, but combinations of the crushing assault of Covid 19, racism, inequality and climate disasters are constantly assaulting us. We pay attention and we care, or we don’t, depending on our states of exhaustion, of distraction, and sometimes of not knowing what to take seriously or not.
We are induced to pay attention or to ignore — or even deny — issues of import due to the value systems we learned growing up, and due to the state of our capacity to weigh the information at our disposal. And of course, due to our capacity or its lack, to think critically. To think critically would mean that we would have the ability and the right to accept or reject some of the concepts thrown at us. To think critically at emotional levels might mean that we stop assuming that anyone has the right to tell us how to feel or how to think at all.
Thinking critically seems very appealing but it can also be vulnerable, if we are attacked for what we think. What’s more it seems that many of us have drifted into an avoidance of awareness of those events or aspects of people or things that would cause us shame. If we are governed by the cultural worship of appearance over truth, we may be primed to try hard, consciously and not, to refuse to admit confusion, doubt, failure. In a culture where words can cover the messiness of uncertainty, we can talk about vulnerability and fear and confusion all we want, and yet by our very semblance of poetic summaries, we attempt to avoid the clumsiness that real vulnerability assaults us with. It is one thing to wax poetic over a feeling and another thing to vomit.
But I pivot hear to talk about the title of this essay, having to do with “taking the power out of power”. By this I also mean that by getting in touch with and championing our right to be as truthful as we are able about the states of our minds, our feelings, our knowledge and our ignorance, we could start to take the air out of the power of appearance over substance.
I first formulated the phrase “taking the power out of power”, in the course of my therapy work with parents. The phrase was in essence a goal I saw as worthy — one that meant the possibility of taking the air out of power struggles and putting the emphasis on discipline through relationship. I had begun to see there could be no authentic discipline without self-discipline for one. And then power alone seemed to be a dead end, leading to disaster in one way or another. I saw how ongoing power struggles could be the downfall of family intimacy, leading to children addicted to fighting — to taunting and to revenge. Or on the other side I saw the emergence of children so meek as to refrain from risking having their own uniqueness of personality or of opinion.
But in addition, so many of us feel too much shame to disagree with those we admire, or even to doubt them. We may not always know we are confused. As in the commonly used adage “when you see something say something”, if we are afraid of the implications of having to take action should we see something bad going on, we may become willfully blinded. We may stop seeing something “off” in the behavior in the people we admire, and do our part in being the populace in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” so we won’t have to admit our leader is naked.
Taking the power out of power would conceivably be to puncture our adhering to the grandiosity and grandeur of those we deem superior to us. When we chronologically come of age, we sometimes take the standards we have internalized from our own pasts, and make these seem to be of gold. Even people who are brilliant on intellectual levels, can be gullible on the inside, still bowing to the absolute authority that has never given way to a more flexible standard that can be evaluated.
Anger has a dubious place in our society, also because there is so much of it running rampant. But perhaps it seems misguided also because rather than being angry at the overly strict authorities and standards of our childhoods, people get angry at whoever can be blamed for everything. As it turns out anger is often a prerequisite for assertiveness. Particularly when we have been raised by people unduly critical and shaming, who have portrayed un unshakable certainty of their positions, we can tend to internalize an unquestioning critical attitude which is turned on the self.
The only way out can at times include getting angry at the abuse of power that is now coming our way in the guise of self-criticism.
Taking the power out of power would be to interrupt the use and abuse of power against us. It would also interrupt the tendency to turn our sense of inadequacy outward, as in ridiculing others — even our friends — and insisting we are better, righteous, morally superior.
The truth comes closer to us when we acknowledge that we are vulnerable to it all — to all the flavors and all the shades of anger and prejudice — as well as the strong wish to connect and belong. And that we are all capable of being susceptible to losing ourselves when in the presence of strong or subtle judges, judges that often echo the voices still sounding like drill sergeants in our minds.
I would like to end with a question: are we capable of the attempt to question our own motivations, our own internal compass that has been established and structured in a way that keeps us from looking left or right or behind us or even in front of us? The implication is that we question that which has made us feel secure and predictable up to now.
Are we interested? Or would this cause us to feel so unhinged by new information, newer access to the different truths inside us. Can we trust in each other and in ourselves to expose the nerves of our own doubts?