Some Thoughts on Losing and Reclaiming Power

Lately the word ‘power’ has been knocking at my brain. I’ve become discerning about what I let in to this squiggly maze of horror and delight, because it might just as easily be the girl from The Ring as Special Agent Gibbs. But the concept has been nagging, so I’m opening the door.

Power and all its implications lie at the heart of everything that matters to me. Power is the very worst thing you can steal from another being, and we do it all the time, in a myriad of ways. Sometimes we go about it with malice aforethought, subversively, in that sneaky part of ourselves that’s dark and enjoys pulling the wings off model airplanes. Maybe we go after someone else’s power because we don’t have any of our own and we’ll take it from those who have no choice: the dog, who loves us; the nerdy kid in the playground, who’s terrified; the immigrant who’ll work for less than minimum wage because that’s better than death in his home country.

But we don’t only undermine the power of others. We give away our own, sometimes voluntarily, maybe even consciously. We lose our power to Titans of commerce and politics, and too often forfeit it to those who don’t have our best interests at heart. We even give it up to those who’d destroy us.

When my daughter was born, one of the reasons I felt like a big mass of fearful, quivering, tearful (all the time) jello was because her power rested in my perfectly fallible hands. I had to protect her; I had to make sure Life wore a mask and gloves before messing with her, so, you know, it wouldn’t pass on any germs; I had to keep her safe, when I knew how Life snickered, if not laughed outright, at such a plan. I made a pact with the unseen, all knowing gods of adverse fate and circumstance that they would go through me to get to her, and take me in her place, if it ever came to that.

See, I was powerless, too. In my awe and adoration, I gave Squidy all my power, and she held it in those pudgy little hands, flinging and tossing and catching it until I was certain she’d drop or demolish it. But she never did. She has always kept it safe.

So what did it mean, me holding her power, and she holding mine? Perhaps it meant that, at some primal level, nature understands that balance at its most steady lies in this exchange. There’s give and take–it’s not linear or constant–but it’s reciprocal, and that’s what gives power its richness. Not the shenanigans of a dysfunctional ego that sets us above or below others in a position of dominance and control.

At the core of all my experience of sorrow and despair, fear and rage, lies an enduring hatred of bullies, and while this intolerance is rooted in childhood, beneath it lies an abhorrence for the abuse of power. So when I see dogs in a cage, or a carrier full of livestock on its way to a slaughterhouse, or doomed migrants in a truck, the grief that overcomes me has to do with each individual’s unbearable relinquishing of power to those who have no plan to honor it. A protagonist in my novel becomes a forensic anthropologist because she believes that every life matters. That’s how I feel.

I’ve seen what the loss of power does to someone, and I’ve lost my own from time to time. I still have moments where I struggle to reclaim it. Defining it helps, and knowing what I want it to look like, too. Claiming power gives me the means to empower others, and that’s what my life must be about. Maybe I didn’t dare define or claim it before because once I held it, delicate and mercurial, could I trust it?

Who and what do we become if we acknowledge that we’re powerful? It’s a beautiful question and the answer is like a deep breath of clean, mountain air. Because I think that acknowledgement is all it takes. At a trickle or a roar, power can be wrested from those who’ve stolen it, and shared with those who have none of their own.

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