The well-known statement “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is attributed to Lord Acton, an English Catholic politician, writer, and historian in the1800’s. This statement has been made again and again over time since then. The media of our century uses it quite frequently . . . especially nowadays. And many believe it. But actually, there’s much more under the surface we need to take into account.
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a blanket statement that doesn’t give responsibility to anyone for misusing and abusing power. It is a statement that doesn’t hold anyone accountable for misusing and abusing power. It makes the power itself responsible and accountable. Not the person. No wonder we’re in the fix we’re in.
It is not power itself that corrupts. It is the people who use the power that corrupt . . . by misusing and abusing the power they have.
Whether they are the president of a country, the CEO of a business, the religious or spiritual leader in a house of worship, the teacher in a classroom, the doctor in a hospital, the parent in a family, the driver behind the wheel in a car on a road . . . people utilize their power – both consciously and unconsciously – in relation to how power was used with them when they were tiny, vulnerable children. How power was used with them often even before they had words to think about or talk about it with. How power was used perhaps so painfully, perhaps so brutally, that they buried the memory of it and the feeling of it, and then start acting it out when they become adults, if not sooner. They act it out without realizing they are perpetuating the abuse of power that they experienced, whether they remember it or not.
One example on the more subtle side might be Cindy’s experience as a child. Her parents, older siblings, and extended family members all ridiculed and humiliated her with their words, meaning, and intention, while using the guise of a loving tone to hide their abuse. Again, under the guise of fake lovingness, they would tell her things like:
“Your crying is the worst sound I’ve ever heard. Shut your mouth.”
“You’re a bad girl for keeping mommy and daddy awake all night.”
“You’re a little monster. You’d eat everything in sight if you could.”
“What an ugly little girl you are. Why can’t you have blond hair and blue eyes like me?”
All of the family members, without realizing it, did to Cindy what was done to them as children.
Or another example . . . Jimmy was a scared little baby. The doctor could see that every time she picked him up, put him down on the examining table, talked to him, touched him. But the doctor couldn’t understand why Jimmy was so scared. His parents, Jim Sr. and Molly, seemed so loving when they were in the office.
But what the doctor couldn’t see was this: At home, Jim Sr. was yelling at Jimmy every time he started crying. The father was yelling and handling Jimmy roughly. Jimmy couldn’t stop crying, and his father’s response to him made him cry all the more. In reaction to the increased volume, intensity and fear in his crying, Jim Sr. would leave the room, slam the door behind him, and start yelling at Molly: “Get your son to shut up!”
Jimmy was just a baby. He didn’t know what was happening. He was completely unable to understand that his father was triggered by his little baby crying. That Jim Sr. had had his own frightening experiences in his infancy, experiences that had been deeply buried and he didn’t even know were there. That his father’s father had been triggered by Jim Sr.’s little baby’s crying and had treated him just like Jimmy’s father was treating Jimmy. And what’s more . . . Jim Sr.’s father didn’t know what was happening either. He was completely unaware that his yelling, roughness, and slamming doors were his own efforts to defend himself from his own early memories and feelings.
In addition, the doctor couldn’t see that a similar thing was occurring with Jimmy’s mother. And Molly couldn’t see it either. Nor could baby Jimmy. Molly was triggered by Jimmy’s crying and by Jim Sr.’s response. Molly herself as a baby had cried and cried in fear because of her own father’s violent responses to her crying. And because her mother had shrunk in fear in response to the violent behavior of her husband. All of this was buried in Molly, even beneath her awareness.
But here they all were . . . baby Jimmy suffering from his parents’ acting out of what they had experienced as babies, without their remembering it, without their having any connection to the feelings they had at that young age. Yet inflicting all of their own wounding on their baby.
This is an explicit picture of people misusing and abusing their power…without even realizing it. It is also an explicit picture of impacting someone else – the next generation – in such a way that they will do the same. It occurs all the time in our world . . . all over our world . . . passed down from one generation to the next. Our relationship with power is passed down the generational line sometimes consciously, but mostly unconsciously.
Sometimes it gets normalized. Like in Joe Sr.’s and Molly’s families. Sometimes it gets confronted, but the power of the family gets misused and abused once again, and instead of allowing the confrontation to create an opening for healing, the group turns against the person confronting . . . just like the parents turned against the baby. At times the person, perhaps like Joe Sr., is asked to become aware and accountable. He will take in his impact on someone else, maybe even say ‘I’m sorry,’ and then go on about his way – without any intention to find out what was triggered in him that caused him to abuse his power with violence – only to continue to abuse his power again and again. He doesn’t realize it, but he is too afraid to explore the cause in him. He is too afraid to remember how he was treated as a baby. He is too afraid to feel once again what he felt as a helpless, frightened baby at the hands of his violent father and his fearful, shrinking mother – both forms of misuse of power.
This is why people continue to misuse and abuse their power. They are afraid of remembering what they have repressed deep within … the memory, the experience, the feelings from long, long ago when they were helpless. They are afraid to experience how power was used with them and what they learned, decided, and created in their own relationship with power. This fear, if not met and healed, will perpetuate the abuse of power in our world. And it will perpetuate people’s not taking responsibility for their misuse and abuse of power, and instead putting it on other people and things. On people – their children, their partners, their friends, and more. On things – on that toy a parent trips over, the milk the baby has an allergy to, even on power itself. As though it is power itself that corrupts . . . not the person’s own relationship with power.
The reason it appears to people that absolute power corrupts absolutely is that having power triggers and brings up for people a whole host of their wounds. Perhaps most of their wounds. Perhaps even all of their wounds. As you saw in the examples above, most of the time this occurs unconsciously. Too many times people are triggered, but one way or another normalize their state of mind, heart, and behavior. Because having power, and especially absolute power, brings up our wounds … it makes parenting a prime arena for our wounding and our defenses against that wounding to be evoked. After all, parenting is the situation in which absolute power occurs most naturally … so of course, it would be the most likely place for the most triggering and the most potential for abuse. This can explain why we don’t consciously give people absolute power. No one is completely aware. No one can be completely aware. And up till now, few have been completely committed to continuously looking for and finding the places they have wounds in their relationship with power … and healing them to the root.
What happens in the individual gets carried into the family. What happens in the family gets carried out into the world . . . into every arena including the government. If you look at the recent events in the US Congress, you see a painful example. Even the people in the media were saying things like: “Where are the grownups?” and “Why can’t they act like adults?” and “They’re acting like little children.”
My response: Yes, you’re right. They’re acting like little children because the little children they once were are still alive inside them. The members of Congress were revealing themselves, but they had no idea they were doing so. They were showing us how they were treated as children. Perhaps some were showing us how their parents would hold the family hostage to get their own way. Perhaps others were showing more specifically how their parents had a scorched earth policy, willing to destroy everything to have what they wanted. And maybe others were showing us how one or more of their parents wouldn’t protect the family, but instead would protect themselves . . . for fear of the hostage taker turning on them and punishing them.
I’m not a gambler, but from my experience with people and their psyches and souls . . . I would bet that if we could witness what happened in the childhoods of the congress people, even the parts of their childhoods that they don’t remember . . . we would see abuses of power just like the ones the congress people themselves just acted out.
It is so clear. It is right out in the light of day for all of us to see. If we don’t see it . . . what memories and feelings are we, ourselves, defending against? What memories and feelings that shaped our relationship with power are we hiding from ourselves? And how do we act out our misuse and abuse of power as a result?
It is not a simple, easy, quick process to heal our relationship with power. It is not simply a mental process, but includes our minds, our hearts, our bodies, and our souls. It is not a straight, linear process, but rather a serpentine path unique to our particular unfolding, our particular development, and the mystery of our particular healing journey. But if we are going to help heal the abuse of power in our world, that is what’s needed to make it possible . . . to one by one by one explore and heal our relationship with power – how it developed, what it felt like, how we’ve buried it, how we act it out, and how we could, with true healing, use our power exquisitely for magnificent good.
© Judith Barr, 2013
WHAT YOU CAN DO
TO HELP MAKE YOUR AND OUR WORLD SAFE . . .
FROM THE INSIDE OUT
All of us have times in our lives when we have power of some kind…and in those times, it’s crucial for us to thoroughly explore our relationship with power.
As you go through your life, try to become aware of times when you have power in relation to a situation, thing, or person. How do you react when you have power? What feelings are triggered in you? Do you know when you first had feelings that were the same or similar? Try to trace that feeling as far back in your life as you can. It will enlighten you about your relationship with power and the roots of that relationship.
Now imagine you’ve been given absolute power…power over everything and everyone around you. What would you do? How do you feel at the thought of having that much power? What feelings come up in you and how intense are those feelings? Can you trace back those feelings too…back to the first time you ever felt that way?
Continue exploring . . . remember how power was used with you by everyone in your childhood — parents, other adult relatives, older siblings, other adults like doctors, clergy, teachers, coaches, babysitters, and more. This is a crucial key: how others used their power in relation to you, and how they treated you in relation to your power.
None of us is so completely aware of ourselves that we have a perfect relationship with power. Each of us has something evoked – however consciously or unconsciously – when we have power or when we have the choice to be in power. And all of us have power in some form or other, at some time or other. What you can do in order to actively do your part: Commit today to explore and heal your relationship with power…so you may use the power you have for magnificent good!