Creatures so close to each other as husband and wife, or a mother and children, have powers of making each other happy or miserable with which no public coercion can deal.
Power has many faces. It exerts itself through avenues including politics, relationships, art, science, and nature. Power itself is morally neutral and can be used to further causes for good or evil. Political power is often hard to ignore; it is loud; it is in your face. Power in relationships is shared to some degree between lovers, friends, and family members. It can intensify feelings of love just as easily as it can deepen a sense of betrayal. Power is displayed through paint and song, rousing both tears and laughter. Power lifts rockets to other worlds and emits blasts that level cities. The awesome power of nature directs atoms and galaxies alike and never ceases to amaze those who seek to understand it.
We should be very careful how we seek power. Feeding a desire for power is like tending a fire. If we respect the power of fire, we light a small amount of kindling and slowly add sticks and logs to gradually build a fire that stays bright and warm. Likewise, a healthy pursuit of power is founded in respect for others, humility, and a desire to bring light and warmth to dark and cold places. If we don’t respect the power of fire, we may take a match to huge amounts of straw, sticks, and wood doused with gasoline, igniting an explosion that burns and destroys. Similarly, an impatient, greedy, lustful desire for power brings devastating ruin.
Happiness and misery are not the products of power, rather, they are consequences of how power is pursued and wielded.
The parent-child relationship offers a telling context where we can observe how power can be used to bring harmony or conflict. The best parents realize they do not have control over their children, only over their children’s access to resources. Parents who understand this use power to influence their children, not to micromanage them. In the marriage and family therapy field, we call this an authoritative parenting style. Authoritative parents are warm, loving, and set clear boundaries by helping children understand the consequences of their actions. Authoritative parents of a fussy eater would say something like, “I love you and want you to eat healthy. If you don’t finish your vegetables, I won’t give you any dessert.” Authoritarian parents, on the other hand, wield power like a dictator. These parents will engage in power struggles with their children because they forget that their kids cannot be forced to bend to their will. Authoritarian parents of a fussy eater would say something like “You better eat those vegetables before I make you eat them! Do you want a spanking? That’s it, give me that spoon, I’ll feed you myself. Hey, don’t you run away from me! GET BACK HERE OR ELSE!” Authoritarian parenting increases distress through unproductive conflict whereas authoritative parenting increases understanding through boundary setting.
All of Us Have Power
We should not forget that everyone has power. Even the most helpless among us, an infant, reminds us of this with the power of a cry. Admittedly, it is easy for many of us to forget we have power when we compare ourselves to the few among us who live in the public spotlight. Yet, we must remember that power comes in many forms. And if we want the world to be a better place, the worst thing we can do is convince ourselves that we have no power and do nothing.
When we are discouraged by the world, we can show strength by setting a good example. If we are oppressed, we can display power through resilience. If we are privileged, we can use our position to partner with the persecuted. If we are wronged, we can show strength through forgiveness. If we have wealth, we can feed and thus empower the hungry. We need to remember that power has no agenda and it can be used even more effectively for good than for evil. Using power to effect change for the better is not without its trials, but it remains a holy and noble calling.
The principle is this: that in everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure. The joy of battle comes after the first fear of death; the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him; the glow of the sea-bather comes after the icy shock of the sea bath; and the success of the marriage comes after the failure of the honeymoon. All human vows, laws, and contracts are so many ways of surviving with success this breaking point, this instant of potential surrender.
In everything on this earth that is worth doing, there is a stage when no one would do it, except for necessity or honor.
G. K. Chesterton