Monday, June 13, 2011

Power and Humility – Part 2

By Miki Kashtan

This is part 2 of a post I wrote last week. This is my continuing exploration. If anyone is looking for answers, I don’t have them. All I know is to keep asking the questions, to keep opening my eyes and ears and heart to more and more input, and to keep taking the next step, whatever it is, knowing full well I don’t know how.
Perhaps the most pressing question for me remains the question of the limits of my resources. What does it really mean to care for everyone's needs, to really care, and also hold clarity about finitude of my resources? When I fully let myself feel the weight of this, I could scream, because I care not only about the people with whom I happen to come in contact. Although in some ways impersonal, my care for all people living on this planet, and for the unspeakable horrors so many experience on a daily basis is large and the level of pain I am in about it often beyond my capacity to tolerate. How do I match that up with my limits?

I derive some solace from a poem written by a friend, Ted Sexauer, who is a Vietnam vet:

I am not responsible
for the movement of the earth
only what I can handle
what I can take in
is the right amount

I find it easier to know my limits with regards to people I don’t know than with regard to those I do. When someone is in front of me, on my path, someone I interact with, whose life is affected directly by my choices, I struggle mightily with knowing when and how to extricate myself. I do it. I am just never sure whether I am truly holding the other person’s needs as I do it, or essentially succumbing to my lack of imagination and closing off, however slightly.
This is a complex issue for anyone with anyone. It gets even more entangled for me when I am the one in a position of power. Honoring my limitations then borders too closely for my comfort with an assertion of my power over others. I don’t know what it means to use my power with others when I am reaching the limits, when there are more people with whom to be in communication about more things and more often than I can possibly handle.
One of the lesser known aspects of Communist parties is the practice known as “criticism/self-criticism.” What I like about it based on my readings is the intention to provide feedback, including to self, to keep learning, and to support learning for others. I am particularly delighted to see that the process was intended to be applied to people in leadership positions alongside others within the party.
From what I read, I have quite a bit of trust in the intention that led to set up this process. In particular I was relieved to see an instruction put out to stay away from personal attack, and to criticize political and organizational mistakes rather than character. I still find the prospect of this process horrifying. I want people in power to receive feedback, not criticism. The two are dramatically different, even if some of what gets looked at can be incorporated into both. Feedback supports learning, while criticism tends to stir up shame.
For myself, I am still learning through feedback more than any other way, and I am not done. I don’t expect to ever be done for as long as I live. I so much want to know how to train or encourage people to stand up to me and tell me of their experience of me when I am in a position of power. For example, I know I need to learn something about why it is that with all of my profound commitment to power-sharing, learning, transparency, and vulnerability, I still hear regularly that people feel disempowered in relation to me. Is there something for me to change, or is it part and parcel of living in our culture that some people will not find their voice and power even when I am open to sharing it? What can I do to minimize the risk? Is there a different invitation I can issue?
Embracing Power
The more I look at power, the more I find fascinating and endless challenges to explore, grapple with, and continue. As soon as we drop the two positions of authoritarian power and abdication of power, we are on our own, figuring it out, without clear role models. The way through, as so often, is not by returning to previous models of authority but by finding new forms of authority that engage differently with power.
For example, I know that I, and others, can get caught in what I sometimes affectionately call the tyranny of inclusion. I believe it's another of the issues that stops those of us working for change from being effective. I see it as based in fear of making decisive moves and offending others. I am learning. Balancing unabashed power with complete humility is such a new territory for us to explore. I feel myself on a learning edge, sometimes alone, sometimes discouraged, and mostly curious and excited.


  1. Miki: I seem to recall that M. Scott Peck wrote eloquently about issues of power some decades ago. His thesis, if memory serves, is that we must not be afraid to exercise power, but the exercise requires profound self-awareness and deep respect for the ability of power to both transform and destroy. In other words, power is good, but handle with extreme care. Of course, I can't remember which of his books contain this discourse, and a quick Google search didn't help.

  2. "Perhaps the most pressing question for me remains the question of the limits of my resources."
    This statement reminded me of an unattributed quote I have always appreciated. "You are not a reservoir with a limited amount of resources; you are a channel attached to unlimited divine resources."
    A few more wise sayings, also without attribution, from the same book:

    "Let us realize that about what happens round us is largely outside our control, but that the way we choose to react to it is inside our control."
    "It takes both rain and sunshine to make a rainbow."
    "To be happy ourselves is a most effectual contribution to the happiness of others."
    and last: "Never miss an opportunity to make others happy, even if you have to leave them alone to do it."
    Excellent article and inquiry, Miki.