What to Know About Power in a Culture of Empowerment

Money, sex and power: The trinity of vice that we fear is so able to corrupt. Even saying these words aloud carries a dash of scandal. These are heavy themes, able to tug on the deepest chambers of our hearts because they’re tied to our core desires, both good and bad.

There are many resources on money and sex, but what about the more abstract third concept? What is power? “Empowerment” is something that we as women are championing and talking about a lot, but we also need to include conversations about what that empowerment is. As we seek to be empowered, does that mean that there are others who must sacrifice their power?

Okay, so … maybe you’re already bored. But I promise, clearly understanding empowerment could change your life. It probably already has! If you have ever had a teacher or a boss invest in you by respecting your dignity and teaching you something new when they could have just given you instructions or ordered you to do a task, then you have experienced a higher level of power. This may have even made you feel a sense of limitless possibilities as you found something inside yourself that you didn’t know was there.

I believe it’s possible to unlock this kind of experience like crazy in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

Not all power is created equal.

Think about the following words and notice what kind of gut-reactions you have about them:

control
dominance
influence
coercion
persuasion
authority
leadership
privilege
prestige
fame
charisma

What did you notice? Some of these words likely had negative connotation to you, while others seemed neutral or positive. They all suggest some quality or quantity of power. Chances are if one of these words repulsed you, it’s because it implied the use of force to limit the agency of other human beings. This type of control is the type of power that spoils into oppression and even violence, which is what some believe is the inevitable outcome of all forms of power. You might have encountered this kind of toxic power before. Maybe you’ve been in a relationship where you were manipulated or at a job where your boss was the only one allowed to have any good ideas. This is often the mode of those who see power as a finite commodity and thus power becomes a zero-sum game.

If this is the nature of power, then for me to gain power, you have to lose power; this is the struggle we see play out continually in the world between nations and lovers, in the stock market and between siblings. If all power is about is control, then perhaps it is a zero-sum game.

But what if the power to control another person is just power at its worst? We must be willing to relinquish that kind of power in exchange for a power that is non-zero-sum. That is the kind which breeds human flourishing and creativity. Otherwise, today’s oppressed become tomorrow’s oppressors and history’s tug-of-war continues.

What if the power to control another person is just power at its worst? We must be willing to relinquish that kind of power in exchange for a power that is non-zero-sum. That is the kind which breeds human flourishing and creativity.

Imagine if people use their power to become reconciled, rather than dominate one another. This is what it looks like when nonprofits help create sustainable businesses in impoverished communities or when a guitar teacher explains scales to you. Nothing is lost for anyone and everyone wins.

But if we continue to try to “win” using toxic power techniques, we continue to be divided. How do we even the balance of power without endlessly subdividing into warring tribes? We already see this playing out in our culture right now. Our desire to feel a sense of belonging, coupled with our passion for justice (which are good things), can tempt us to separate into factions (which is bad).

Taking inventory creates healthy power.

What would it look like to activate creative power in your own life? We can work on it from two ends. For one, we can take stock of the ways we’ve used power to manipulate, dominate or control in ways that were not healthy and choose to start operating in a different way.

Secondly, some of us need to start admitting to the untapped creative power that we have access to. We’re all gifted with our respective portions of power and influence, and we need to be ready to use our spheres of influence (large or small) for love and service, instead of denying they exist. Do not accept the idea that you are without gifts, talents, a unique perspective, an imagination and the ability to discern right and wrong. These capacities grant you ample creative power to help heal the world and bring new, good things into being.

That said, most of us move from different degrees of power and influence throughout our days and weeks. We may have a privileged position in our home, but marginalized position in our workplace. We may have a privileged position at our church, but a marginalized position in our community.

How do we take creative power to a practical level as we move through varying degrees of influence?

If you’re in a place of power:

Maybe you’ve gotten to a point in your career where you’ve achieved a level of privilege and respect. Perhaps you’re in a management position where you supervise others. If you haven’t already, consider creating a system for your power to be checked. Create safe spaces for others to offer suggestions or critique of the way things are done. Ask questions frequently of your associates and employees to get their feedback.

Also, give away responsibilities where you see strengths in others around you. Teach someone else to do something that you do well, without considering her a threat. Also, cultivate an area of your life where you’re not in authority, e.g. get tutored in a new language or musical instrument. That humility will give you the perspective you need to be a better leader.

If you’re feeling powerless:

Even if we pursue creative power, we will continually encounter agents of zero-sum power who subtly or overtly exercise power-at-its-worst. The battle against toxic power can be fought subversively as we choose to counter enmity with love.

Be radical about pursuing empathy and truly understanding where others are coming from. Beware of dehumanizing and stereotyping thoughts about those on the other side of the power dynamic. And be ready and willing to educate and share your viewpoint when the time is right.

The implications of controlling vs. creative power are really endless. What are some ways you see these dynamics in your own life?

Images via Grace Rivera

Sarey lives in Los Angeles, and sometimes finds herself writing and producing films, composing poetry, taking on digital media projects, and studying intersections of faith and popular culture. She holds an MA in Theology and the Arts from Fuller Theological Seminary, and has a Chihuahua named Eight.

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