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The Other Side of Power

by on August 29, 2016

                                                                 The Other Side of Power

                                                                        by Marco M. Pardi

The goddess Nemesis…symbolizes retributive justice for those who fail to recognize the limits of power.” Peter W. Dickson.  Kissinger and the Meaning of History. 1978

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Although technically inert or inactive, the word Power itself evokes a sense of inherent or potentially felt action.  Thus, while not truly a charged word, it nonetheless elicits the question, relative to what, or to whom? Until we have that answered clearly we are left with a sense of ambiguous threat.

Anthropology and archaeology, as well as religion, tell us power, or mana, in the form of objects and/or persons has been around at least since the appearance of Homo sapiens and probably well before. These forms may be as ritual objects, authority vested in a person, certain utterances or acts, or even the sense that a certain place inherently has power.  Yet all of these are in the potentially active sense; the power pre-exists, it is only that the practitioner or the passer-by, in the case of places, has yet to activate it.

Of course, an inventory of power objects, places and people would be exhaustive and that is not my intent here.  Instead, I want to look at what can happen when power is viewed only from a positive perspective.  Actually, there is a long standing admonition which speaks to this: Be careful what you wish for.

Let’s take the example of the 13 year old boy with his first .22 rifle.  The object is clearly designed to serve a specific purpose: to propel a solid object – bullet – toward a target, be it animate or inanimate.  The boy learns to shoot the rifle by aiming at tin cans, bottles, or even paper targets. The discharge, complete with scent of cordite and a hint of a recoil, excites the boy.  He quickly becomes proficient at drilling those cans and making them jump, shattering those bottles, and scoring Bullseyes on the paper target.  He even learns proper gun safety along the way.  Soon, he is ready to go rabbit hunting. He feels quite certain he is able to exert power over the rabbit; he is able to “bag it”.  His rifle has power, and he has power from having the rifle. Perhaps he even has visions of proudly bringing his trophy home and, vaguely, having it prepared as dinner. He has little to no idea how, but it will be so. And even if it isn’t prepared for dinner, Mom will have already prepared dinner anyway.

After traipsing around the fields of scrub brush, alert to the wily ways of his furry adversary, he sights on a rabbit several yards away and fires.  The rabbit leaps in the air.  A hit!

But when it lands it does so on the run.  In fact it runs full speed in endless circles and spirals screaming all the while until it disappears somewhere in the shrub. He gut-shot it.  If this story had a pleasant side it would be that he suddenly realized rabbits don’t “die” like tin cans, bottles, or squares of paper. Our pleasant story would have him realize exactly what he is powerless to do: He is powerless to undo the shot. He cannot un-shoot the rabbit.  However, he has another developing power: the power of rationalization.  Does he tell himself the rabbit will recover and go on?  In reality, many animals linger in misery for days before succumbing to sepsis.  Is this a building block for a lifestyle of hurting others and telling himself they’ll get over it?

Some years ago a family provided me a base from which I could roam a large area.  One evening the young son, about 19, came home from a fishing trip with a large fish in a bucket of water.  He had no idea how to kill it and prepare it for eating and wanted me to do so.  I refused, but told him I would instruct him on each step as he did it himself. He had the power to catch the fish. Now he must exercise the power to carry through with the consequences.

Very early in life I began an acquaintance with what are called Eastern philosophies and practices.  I became fascinated with the concept of allowing someone to “save face”.  My interest was no doubt stimulated by experiences with teaching nuns who snorted, mocked, and called derisive class attention to the wrong answers ventured by trusting children.  Even in those years school became that which one survived, not that from which someone learned and developed.  Power that came through knowledge gained in school was subverted into power to be used in survival, in school and in later life.

In graduate school I heard a fellow grad student respond to a question of why she was working so hard for a Ph.D.  Her eyes opened wide as she said, “Power in the classroom”.  To this day I find it strange that someone would equate power with a degree.  I felt I was hearing future misuse of power, a person who, like instructors most of us have known, would bait students toward wrong answers simply for the ego thrill of “burning them down”.  Indeed, despite occasional complaints from students who wanted me to do this to students in their classes, I tried over the years to address wrong answers with something like, “I think I can see how you got there, but try looking at it from this perspective”, going on to suggest a more appropriate approach to the question.  To me, that is teaching.  Simply shutting a student down is not.  Making every effort to provide a student with the opportunity and means to save face was, to me, a way of saving the student’s interest in and enthusiasm for the material. Power in the classroom comes with responsibilities.  

Recently much has been made of the possibility of an uncouth, ignorant lout having control of the “nuclear football”, actually the “President’s emergency satchel”. Contrary to media imagery, the satchel does not contain a launch keyboard which will suddenly send sea, land, and air based nuclear weapons toward a target.  It contains a means of authenticating the identity of the President in response to communication from the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon. This is done via a laminated code card, called “the biscuit” on the person of the President at all times. Also included is a menu for his/her input into nuclear use options.  The satchel is carried by a military aide who must be by the president at all times while away from the White House. The Russian equivalent is the chemodanchik – the “little briefcase”.  What is typically overlooked in the popular apocalyptic scenarios is the pyramid of power resident in the military, and to some extent civilian, command structure below the person authenticating through the satchel.  In reality, a President in an oafish pique over what he takes as an insulting Tweet cannot simply punch in a code and end the world. While there certainly are “Hooah” buffoons in the military, senior officers know the power of military action comes with responsibility for consequences.  But this threat makes for good political traction.     

As I stated earlier, there is a myriad of examples of power used without thought to consequence and I am certain readers can provide an exhaustive list from parenting to international relations.  An associate of mine is fond of quoting a Super Hero character, “With great power comes great responsibility”.  I plead ignorance of Super Heroes, but I sadly can quote no end of people who didn’t get the memo.

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  1. Gary permalink

    In my first year of law school I was subjected to a professor who taught Real Property Law by using the “Socratic” method. He would walk down the aisle of the classroom in full lawyer’s robes (the only one in the school who did so). He held his head high at the podium and picked some poor student’s name from the roster for the morning’s starting humiliation. He looked off into the distance while his victim struggled to give him an answer as if the classroom lights were more interesting than the fool’s attempt at an answer. He was positively terrifying. If you saw the movie “The Paper Chase” with John Housman, you saw my professor’s classroom. And yet, I learned more substance and debate and advocacy in that one guy’s class than all the others throughout my 3 years of law school. I cherished that experience even though I trembled in expectation of hearing my name called.


  2. Very interesting account, Gary, and it made me envy your law school experience. I’m just guessing, however, that his behavior, challenge, and presentation were not capricious but extraordinarily well thought out as a means of doing exactly what it did for you. I would wish we had many more like him in our institutions of higher learning. Sadly, we’ve been taken over by an ethic of false helpfulness, moving students along under the delusion they are succeeding. Too often I felt the college experience was misleading for too many people.


  3. I’ve been thinking about this since I first read it two days ago, but I’m still not sure what of any value I have to offer in response. You see, I’ve never had any real power, not even over my own life.

    We all know that there are consequences to our actions, but I wonder if those in power ever consider those consequences before they act. Like you, I worry more about the puppeteers than the puppets; they pull the strings and expect us all to jump. What are their motives? Do they even care what effect their actions have on the rest of us?

    This latest election has me terrified. I am hard pressed to know what the real issues may be; it’s been nothing but mud-slinging and lies for months. It’s not like the president has unlimited power, but with congress behind them…

    Explain this to me if you can; I’m trying to makes an intelligent decision. The consequences of doing otherwise are mind boggling.


    • Thank you, Rose. I fully sympathize with your deep concern over the current political process. But as you point out, we should keep our eyes on the puppet masters, not just the puppets. That our choices have come to this is deeply unsettling; it suggests the puppet masters are developing an agenda of which most people suspect nothing. The vile circus now playing out is a very effective distraction.

      I am sure one particular side, the Republicans, wants you to not vote. You are a deep thinker, and they fear you. They also fear minorities (and deep thinkers fit that bill, too) and attempt every and any measure to block their votes. So, I would say not voting is not an option. I will vote for the other side, hoping for a generalized “better” but recognizing there may be costs there as well.


  4. Mark Dohle permalink

    I remember the first time the abbot at the time (Fr. Bernard) wanted me to be his 3td superior (sub-prior). I was surprised at this because I simply did not think I had the wherewithal to do it. I did accept it however, because I knew that if I did not, I would regret it for all my life. The first thing that struck me is that I had to be careful what I said or did, because like it or not, I was an authority figure. Then when I was made 2nd superior in 95 it was even more serious, since when the abbot was gone I was ‘sort of’ in charge. Being a sort of big fish in a very little pond is still power and people have unconscious response to it that can be strong and based on past abuse. I do know that power evokes in me a great deal of mistrust that I have to try to keep before my conscious mind when I do deal with authority figures. Power, no matter how much can bring out the worst in one who has it. Sort of like when child has candy and the other children want some. For a short time there is power of a sort and it is interesting how the arch-typical situation plays out.

    I stopped hunting when I was 15, because we were doing it for pleasure and not for food. I am not against hunting, in some areas it is necessary. Deep population come to mind. But to simply kill for the pleasure seems wrong to me.


    • Thank you, Mark. I think many people would be surprised and a bit puzzled at the concept of power in a monastery. I would guess many people see a monastery as a refuge from power. Still, while it is equally given and equally accepted in the monastic community it seems far more benign than what we so often see in “power relationships” elsewhere.

      I share your feelings on hunting. By heedlessly killing predators we have unbalanced the natural population controls we now have to replace with our own means – and that is sad.


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