I’ve dedicated the last decade of my life to reclaiming my personal power, each step on the path made visible on this blog in the hopes that others might also find their way into a healthier, happier, more effective life.
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It’s been an extraordinary journey, one I hope will never end as long as I’m breathing.
At the heart of personal power is our ability to choose.
I’ve always been aware of how uncomfortable I am choosing for anyone other than myself. For years I wasn’t able to choose effectively for myself; nothing in me wanted the power to choose for others. Hand-in-hand with this part of my experience is an automatic, knee-jerk stubbornness and opposition to those who try to choose for me or anyone else. It’s been a longstanding family joke: Don’t tell me what to do!
I’ve never been friendly toward this kind of authority.
As a parent I was unwilling to take on the role of a policewoman. I wanted my sons, as teenagers, to use their excellent brains and make their own choices, then deal with their own consequences. As I raised them, it slowly dawned on me the choices I made as a mom, though I always believed they were in the best interests of my sons, might have been wrong for them. I began to realize how much time we all spend in frustration over what those around us should and shouldn’t do, including our kids. I decided to stop discussing what others should choose. I still noticed the commentary in my head, but I got better at not letting it out of my mouth.
One day, I looked at my eldest son, who was going through a bad patch, and heard myself say, “I want the best for you, but I don’t know what that is.” I recognized that was the truth, and felt humbled. It broke my heart to see him struggling and unhappy. I would have done anything to have “helped.” But I didn’t trust my motives. Of course I knew what I thought he should do, but was I looking for him to feel better or for him to make me feel better? I couldn’t be sure. I just wanted things to be better. Wanted it desperately, but I also wanted him to figure out how to help himself.
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I’m very aware of the word ‘should.’ I cut it out of my writing. I cut it out of my thoughts and speech. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a toxic word. I don’t apply it to myself and I don’t apply it to others. It never fails to appear when I’m arguing with what is or have otherwise stepped out of my own rightful power and am trying to control a situation that’s not mine to manage. It also shows up when I’m being mean to myself.
Now, suddenly, I find myself in a position of needing to make choices for a loved one who at this moment is not able to choose for themselves.
This is not like choice-making for my children. Kids are pretty resilient. I knew I would made mistakes as a parent, and I did. But I could always choose again. With small children, there’s a long future in which to reconsider, make new rules, learn in real time. I wasn’t uncomfortable with it. As they grew up, I gave them more and more power to choose for themselves and stepped back while they experienced the consequences of their choices.
Now they’re adults, and it’s harder. Now I really have nothing to say about their choices as men in the world. It’s not my business. Some of their choices are, to my mind, tragic and self-destructive, and I’m afraid for possible consequences. I’m afraid for my own pain and grief if some of those consequences occur. But I accept the only power I have is to love them and make sure they know it.
And making choices for an aging loved one is different again. The fear I’ll do it wrong is terrible. I’m working in a lifetime context where I never did do anything right, so I’m fighting that old dynamic every minute while I calmly go about gathering tools, resources and information. I know I’ll do my best and I’m confident in my own abilities and the strength of my love and intention, but choice is dynamic. It takes time to choose, observe outcomes, consider what could be better, and choose again.
I don’t know how much time I have. I don’t know how much time I want.
Working with a frail, injured, confused senior feels brittle. I may not have time to manage choice and outcome. Not only that, but when I choose for myself if I’m unhappy with the consequences I only have myself to blame; I bear all the outcomes, which is as it should be. But if we must choose for someone else, they must experience the consequences of our choice. And that’s a heavy burden for me. I feel enormous pressure to choose well, to not make anything worse, while at the same time I can’t see choices that will make anything much better.
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As I struggle with all this, mid-term elections have occurred and the final votes are being counted. The news is full of debate, discussion, and violence revolving around limiting choice and forcing “choice.” As always, I cannot get my head around people who think it’s okay to impose their ideology on others. I support freedom of personal choice (as long as it doesn’t harm others) in most circumstances. I wouldn’t impose my beliefs or choices on others. The idea is appalling. But I also don’t accept anyone has the right to restrict my access to vote or what I do with my reproductive ability. I refuse to comply with such imposition, even if it becomes law. You might as well arrest me right now.
A conversation recently took place at the pool facility where I work between a woman of child-bearing age and a male senior. She asked him why he thought it was okay for him to decide she couldn’t get an abortion when the choice was personal and had absolutely nothing to do with him. He said such a choice would hurt his feelings.
This drops my jaw. I don’t know whether to let rage catch my hair on fire or laugh. It hurts his feelings when people make choices incongruent with his belief system and ideology? Or it hurts his feelings when women are empowered? Or it hurts his feelings when he can’t control what others choose? Or he feels entitled to never have his feelings hurt?
Wow. Just wow.
Choice. It’s so easy to say to others, or to think, they should do this, or this, or the other. So easy. But I never wanted to run the world. I only wanted to be in charge of myself. Now a loved one needs me to be there for them, and I will be there every step of the way, giving it my best, just as I always have. But it’s not fun. I don’t want the power. I accept I’m the right one to have the power, but I never wanted it. How can I possibly know what’s best for another human being? How can any of us have the arrogance to think we know what’s best for everyone in every circumstance, let alone anyone in any circumstance? At times I can barely choose wisely for myself, let alone anyone else.
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Probably every child is told we all have to do things we don’t want to do.
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Children are concrete, and I was no exception. When I heard we all have to do things we don’t want to do, I thought it meant that’s what life was supposed to be about, a kind of slavery to all those things we don’t want to do. No one talked to me about balance, or doing the things we do want to do.
It made life seem like an unhappy business, years and years of unending duty, responsibility, and doing what I didn’t want to do. No recess. Or maybe what I really wanted to do was bad and wrong? Maybe I should want to do what I didn’t want to do. I wasn’t sure. A part of me went underground. I didn’t want anyone to know how bad I was, how flawed. I worked hard at the things I didn’t want to do and hid the things I did want to do, in case they were wrong.
But I couldn’t conceal the feeling of wanting and not wanting from myself. I used to make hidey holes in whatever house we were living in at the time and go to ground with a book, but I always felt guilty. I wanted to read. Doing what I wanted to do was bad. I should have been helping my mom do all the things she didn’t want to do.
The pronouncement that we all have to do things we don’t want to do is stated as a Cosmic Truth, especially as an adult tells it to a child. It’s loaded with feelings and experience a child can’t possibly understand, but the subtext was clear to me:
Life is not much fun.
I can’t resist picking apart Cosmic Truths as an adult, and as I think about this one it occurs to me it really has to do with personal power more than wanting or not wanting. It’s not framed in terms of personal power because our emotional intelligence is so low. Making choices based on whether we want to do something or not is childish. Power resides in the act of choice, not in the wanting or not wanting.
Steering our lives solely by our desires is hedonism, a belief that satisfaction of desires is the purpose of life. Desire, though, is so shallow, so fleeting. And it’s never permanently satisfied. No matter how well and pleasurably we’ve eaten, we’ll be hungry again. Desire is a treadmill we can never get off.
This is not to say we shouldn’t ever choose something we want or say no to something we don’t want, but our desire is easily manipulated. That’s why advertising works. If we can be easily manipulated, we’re not standing in our power. Addiction is based, at least in the beginning, on wanting and not wanting.
A more useful question than What do I want to do? is What would be the most powerful thing to do? We might want to eat a carton of ice cream, but a walk feeds our health, well-being, and thus personal power much better. After all, one carton of ice cream leads nowhere but to another. Personal power can lead us to joy and experience a carton of ice cream never dreamed of.
- If we don’t choose to do difficult, frightening, or new things, we’ll never grow.
- If we don’t choose to take care of our bodies, they won’t function well.
- If we don’t choose to be self-sufficient and resilient, we’ll be dependent.
- If we don’t choose to learn anything, we’ll remain ignorant.
- If we don’t choose to plan ahead, prepare, or manage consequences, we diminish our choices, waste resource, and weaken the contribution we’re capable of making.
- If we don’t choose the responsibility of commitment and making choices, someone else will make our choices for us.
And so on.
I’m changing the frame. I’m less interested in what I want and what I don’t want and more interested in how my choices affect my power, and the power of those around me. I’m willing to do what I don’t want to do if it’s a step on a road leading to integrity, power, healthy relationship, or anything else important to me. At the same time, I can exercise my right to say no to things that won’t take me where I want to go.
It’s about power, not desire. Any three-year-old can want and not want. It takes an adult to manage a healthy balance of personal power.
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When we bought our new house, a flagpole and the American flag came with it.
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The day Roe v. Wade was overturned, we took down the flag. I don’t recognize America anymore. The democracy I grew up in is languishing and I no longer feel our government represents the best interests of people or planet. It certainly isn’t interested in surviving and thriving for any but a select few power-over people who are impotent, incompetent, and emotionally bankrupt, not to mention unbelievably stupid. These times are the logical end stages of capitalism. We are so far astray we have made money into a god and worshiping that god has us all on our knees and many of us face down in the street being murdered. I’m not celebrating. I’m grieving. I’m angry.
The pandemic years and increasing awareness and visibility of systemic racism brought the discussion of freedom into daily discourse. What freedom is. What freedom isn’t.
Freedom is power. People who work for power with others focus on supporting an equitable playing field for all. That means some people need to lose some power and others need to have theirs restored so we all have equal access to resource.
Power, by the way, is not defined by money. We’ve been culturally brainwashed to believe it is, but it’s not. Who benefits from the persistent and relentless narrative insisting it is? Are you benefitting?
People who work for power-over are afraid. Fear breeds hatred. Other words for hatred are racism, homophobia, and bigotry. Power-over people, like any tyrant, fear rebellion, and all their energy goes into controlling information and brutally silencing dissent or discussion.
What we are allowing to take shape is a dystopian world. It’s not a movie we’re going to walk out of in two and a half hours. It’s not a science fiction book. It’s not a role-playing game.
It’s real, and it’s really happening. Just like climate change, it’s not something to scare or depress ourselves with and then, like Scarlett O’Hara, tell ourselves we’ll think about it tomorrow. Tomorrow was yesterday. Climate change and the end of democracy are not far-off footsteps in the night-dark and scary forest. They’re here. They’re now. They’re in our tent with us.
Here are characteristics of a dystopian society:
- Communication (misinformation) is used to control citizens.
- Information (facts), critical thinking, and freedom are restricted.
- Citizens worship a figurehead or ideology.
- Citizens perceive they are under constant surveillance.
- Citizens fear change, new information, or new experience. Anything or anyone different is perceived as a threat to existence. Conformity is paramount. Individuality and dissent are stamped out.
- Citizens are stripped of their humanity.
- The natural world is raped, poisoned, and distrusted.
- Controls force citizens to accept the illusion of a perfect utopian world.
Dystopian controls include corporate, bureaucratic, technological, and philosophical/religious entities.
Welcome to the dawn of dystopia, people. For most of us, freedom is slowly vanishing, but it’s still possible to reclaim it. There are people who see clearly and speak and write the truth. Some of us believe in the common good and in living in service to others, to justice, and to the planet. We can fight. We can refuse to be silenced. We can hold fast to one another and balance the growing hate in the world with our love and righteous anger.
I’ll leave you with a couple of thoughts from Toni Morrison:
“The function of freedom is to free somebody else.”
“Freedom is choosing your responsibility. It’s not having no responsibilities; it’s choosing the ones you want.”
Be well. Take care of yourselves and each other.
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Can you walk away? Will you choose to?
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This piece from Leo Babauta hit my Inbox recently, and I’ve been turning it over in my mind.
Before I go any further, I need a moment to sit here and shudder. Because walking away is hard. It’s devastating. It’s an atomic bomb.
At least it’s felt that way when I’ve done it in my personal life, probably because I’ve waited, dithering, denying, distracting, hanging on and trying harder, so long for things to change. For me to change. For the other person to change. For divine intervention. For some event or person to rescue me.
By the time I do walk away I’m utterly exhausted and used up, and I hate myself far more than those affected by my walking away, though they, of course, don’t understand that. The relief inherent in walking away, the freedom, the reclamation of personal power, have only made me hate myself more.
Babauta’s article doesn’t start with the interpersonal stuff, though. He comes at it from a minimalist perspective. Can you walk away from an unhappy job? From a new car? From a deal or negotiation? From a tempting but unethical situation in which you might gain? From a new gadget or toy you really want but don’t need and can’t afford? From being too busy, too noisy, too tired, too stimulated?
Can you walk away from what the neighbors think, or your family? Can you walk away from the belief you need any particular person in your life to be happy? Can you walk away from your hopes and the beautiful dream you know is never coming true? Can you walk away from a toxic situation you’re deeply invested in? Can you walk away from the things and/or people destroying you?
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If you can’t walk, can you crawl away? On your belly, clawing at the ground, sobbing, naked and alone, can you crawl away?
It’s more than that, though. Will you?
Most of us can walk away if we have to. Many of us have had to and have done it. But who hasn’t felt stuck, unable to walk away, no matter how dark and dirty our fantasies are of leaving it all behind?
(Come on, I know you’ve had that fantasy at some time or another. Get in the car and drive until … until you’ve reached the edge of the world, of your life. Until you’ve run out of money or gas. Until you hit the ocean. Until you can stop.
Or go out the front door and start walking without looking back. Disappear. Vanish like a drop of water in the desert. Become nameless, faceless, rootless, homeless.)
But sometimes we feel stuck. Forever. Or what might as well be forever, because in this moment we’re so tired, so drained, so empty, there’s no comfort in the thought that things will change someday. One day.
One day is too far ahead. We’re not sure how to get through this day. But we have to. And the day after that. And the day after that. We made promises. We have responsibilities, loyalties, duties to others. We’re the keystone, the essential piece, the glue holding it together. It depends on us. If we’re not there … what? What would happen? Would everybody die? Would their lives be ruined? Would the sky fall?
Would they stop loving us?
That’s the worst fear, isn’t it? They’ll stop loving us. We love them and we have to walk away and then they’ll stop loving us. How can anyone love us when we’ve walked away? How can we love ourselves? How can anyone ever understand?
Does love require we allow ourselves to be destroyed? Are we supposed to love others more than ourselves?
Or are we allowed to walk away if we must to save our own lives? But what if no one believes us?
(For God’s sake, stop whining! Stop making such a big deal out of everything! You’re so dramatic!)
The terrible, inescapable truth about walking away is if we can’t do it, we’ve given away part of our power. If we choose to do it and reclaim our power, the price can bankrupt us financially, mentally, and emotionally.
On the other hand, sometimes the simple act of walking away sets us free in extraordinary, joyful ways we can’t even imagine.
Sometimes (perhaps hardest of all) we face annihilating consequences and experience freedom.
Can I walk away?
Will I choose to?
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All my life, when I tackle a problem or a challenge, if I don’t succeed I assume it’s about me. I’m not fill-in-the-blank-enough. I’m a failure. So, I work harder. I perseverate. I obsess. I refuse to give up. I try, and I try, and I go on trying until I’m used up, and then I try some more.
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Every now and then I get jarred into a wider perspective and I suddenly understand some problems can’t be solved. Some challenges can’t be mitigated. Sometimes the change I’m seeking is not possible. This happened recently with a short note from Seth Godin in my Inbox titled “The Win-Win Fallacy.”
I’ve studied power dynamics for several years now, as regular readers know. One of my most important filters in evaluating others is whether they come from a power-over (win-lose) or power-with (win-win) perspective. This discernment is not necessarily loaded with judgement. In some cases, power-over is both effective and appropriate. In terms of personal relationships, though, I’m not eager to engage with people working for power-over.
The invisible problem (to me) with this filter is I haven’t thought of it as a continuum. I’ve thought of it as two isolated positions. You’re one, or you’re the other. (You’re with me or you’re against me.)
I abhor black-and-white thinking. Way too much of it in the world. It’s always a trap, and it always feels manipulative. Maybe one of the reasons I dislike it so much is that I’m so prone to it myself. It sneaks up on me, completely invisible, and I’m chagrined when I realize I’ve fallen into it. Again. Aargh!
These few sentences from Godin point out many problems don’t have a win-win solution, especially problems that have been around a while. If there was a win-win, someone would have found it. Think about gun control, for example. (I know, I don’t want to think about it anymore, either, but our children are going to keep dying in schools until we figure it out.)
Maybe it’s not that I’m too stupid to find the win-win in any given situation. Maybe there isn’t one.
Maybe some problems can only be solved on a continuum of sort-of-win, sort-of-lose, or even definitely win-lose, at least in the short term. Maybe, as Godin points out, what we should work for is something better than we have now, a situation in which most people are happier than they are with the current status quo. This, by the way, is what’s known as compromise.
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Time changes things. I’ve often lost in the short term but won in the long term, or vice versa. Winning and losing are relative positions, a snapshot of one moment in time. They can and do change. (A private prayer of thanksgiving here.)
We are obsessed with winning in this culture. We’ll kill others and/or ourselves in order to be right. We’ll lie, cheat, and steal to ensure we win. We elevate winners with power, money, and authority. Some people are unable to accept losing anything, ever.
People who operate from this perspective are unable to discuss, negotiate, or compromise. They have no interest in the price of their win, as long as they get it. They don’t care who loses, who suffers, who dies. They don’t care about justice. The win is all. Nothing else matters.
Then there are people like me who are convinced justice (always assuming we can identify and agree upon what’s just!) is desirable and achievable and must prevail at any cost. I’m equally obsessed with the belief that winning doesn’t matter a damn and people who think winning is power are pathetic. It doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong. What matters is working together to figure out the greatest good for everyone, for all life on Planet Earth, most of which is not human, by the way.
But what if there’s not a win-win, in either the short or the long term? We’re losing animal species every day. Maybe certain kinds of human thinking and behavior should also go extinct. Maybe we need losers so the majority wins.
So the majority wins, not the most powerful minority. Just to be clear. And that means sometimes we need to be willing to lose something for the greater good. A small sacrifice. What a concept.
It’s tricky. I don’t want it to be tricky. I want it to be clear, because that’s easier. Win-lose, or win-win.
But I see it’s not clear. It is a continuum. Lots of shades of grey in there, lots of ways to win and lose at once, and even that changes over time.
On a purely personal level, I need to stop making myself and everyone else crazy with my neurotic obsession with absolutely equal power, a perfectly equal win. I do believe it can happen. I believe it’s possible. On the other hand, Godin has me convinced it’s not always possible. If I’ve tried as hard and as long as I can, maybe the problem isn’t me at all. Maybe the only solution(s) are somewhere between the pure and saintly win-win and the power-grabbing win-lose.
Life is complicated.
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I subscribe to a Substack newsletter for writers by Lani Diane Rich. A few weeks ago, she wrote about being bad. On purpose. It made me laugh.
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I’m one of those people who has a recording angel at my shoulder, busily writing down every single less-than-perfect thing I think, say, or do. It’s a full-time job.
The idea of being bad – on purpose! – caught my attention.
Well, maybe not on purpose. Maybe just living in such a way that “bad” and “good” don’t enter into … anything.
But then again, maybe on purpose. Maybe writing badly, acting badly, cleaning a dish badly, or eating a whole pizza and letting the grease run down my chin without regret or guilt on purpose.
My horror at the idea (not about the pizza, though) makes me giggle.
This writer makes a great point. Doing things badly, in general, will result in negative feedback of one kind or another. But so does doing things well. In fact, sometimes doing things well results in more negative feedback than doing them badly! Then there’s always the average middle ground: doing things well enough to get by, thereby avoiding attention for being really good or really bad.
Ugh. I’d rather be bad than fit myself into average if I can’t manage good.
How many times in my life have I thought or said, “I’m doing the best I can”?
Hundreds. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands.
Why is it my job to do the best I can?
It used to be my job because I had to justify my existence. However, I’ve outgrown that mindset now and I can’t take it very seriously. I don’t have to justify my existence anymore.
I also did it to stay safe and get loved.
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It didn’t work.
I do it to make a deal with the Universe. I’ll do this thing as best I can if you’ll make sure I’m OK.
Hard to say if that’s effective. I’ve always been OK, but I might have been without killing myself trying to be good.
I do it to prepare for failure. I’ll try as hard as I can, and if (when) I fail, at least I’ll know I gave it my best.
Failure and success. I’ve redefined those. I haven’t always gotten the success I’ve wanted, but that doesn’t mean I’ve failed. In fact, some of my most stunning missteps and miscalculations have turned out to be life-changing gifts.
In the end, I have one good reason for being good, and that has to do with my own integrity. It’s important to me to know I’m doing the best I can in everything I do. I don’t expect praise or rewards. I’ve learned (sadly) it’s no guarantee my needs will be met. I know better than to expect reciprocity or appreciation.
It’s simply who I choose to be in the world.
But here’s a question: are “bad” and “good” mutually exclusive? Would I be more flexible, more creative, healthier, happier, and more whole if I could be bad as well as good? Is there unexplored territory in badness? Could the ability to choose to be bad be part of being good?
Could I choose to be some degree of bad along with good?
Being skilled, productive, effective, useful, kind, reliable, honest, etc., etc. all the time takes a lot of energy.
A lot of energy.
When we’re kids, we’re taught good things come to people who are good.
It would be nice if life was that easy.
I can’t help but notice while I’m doing my best from dawn to dusk some other people are not. Other people are sloppy and lazy and careless and they’re not struck down dead by a celestial lightning bolt.
A little voice in my head says that’s all the more reason I have to be continually good, to pick up the slack the fuck-it-I-don’t-care people leave.
Bullshit. I’m not the Cosmic Miss Fix-It.
Maybe it’s okay to think about taking a break from the job of being “so goddamn excellent all the time,” in Lani’s words.
Everyone needs a day off now and then. A lunch break. A vacation. Maybe I’ve worked too much overtime being excellent. Maybe I’ve lost my work-life balance.
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