Power and Compassion

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

This quote is from Martin Luther King Jr., who was not Pagan yet speaks to the value pairing of power and compassion as voiced in The Charge of the Goddess. As a person raised in the Catholic tradition and taught by social justice advocates, the value of justice seems to me one expression of spiritual devotion, not necessarily bound by a particular creed but emerging from a deepening relationship with all-that-is.

Compassion is our capacity to feel empathy for others while remembering that we are separate. Both qualities are important to compassion. The extent to which I can empathize with my own feelings is the limit of my ability to empathize with others’. The ability to differentiate between my feelings and others’ affects my capacity to tolerate empathy and respond accurately.

Empathy leads to meaningful, intimate relationships with my self and others. Conflict, avoidance, and hurtful relationships often coincide with failure to empathize. A seeming contradiction: we are hard-wired for empathy. “Mirror neurons” in our brains cause us to sense an echo of the experiences we see. If someone is in pain, we feel it in ourselves, whether consciously or not. We are emotionally susceptible, often influenced by the strongest emotions in the room, especially when those feelings are not named. Naming is the cognitive process whereby we begin to differentiate our experience from others’.

The failure to accurately empathize and differentiate leads to problems. We start avoiding people who are angry or in pain when what they need most is connection. We let relationships fall apart. We allow widespread social ills to continue because we have numbed ourselves to suffering. We also rush to “fix” others’ problems just to stop their suffering so we can feel better. We don’t listen to what the other person really needs, and give them what we think we can, compounding the original suffering with feelings of being unheard, invisible, worthless.

Already we are looking at power with compassion. Power is our ability to act, to do. When compassion fails, we use or fail to use our power in ways that are hurtful. Intolerance for facing our feelings, or that of others, robs us of the ability to act. We would do almost anything, including nurture our own suffering and resentment, and not face the raw pain, anger, and disappointment of another.

To value power comes with taking responsibility for the conditions of my life and taking action. When I feel overwhelmed by anger or despair, when my needs aren’t being met, or when someone else’s bad mood is draining me, I can return to power by naming, saying these things out loud, to myself or to another person. When I see another suffering, I can abdicate power by looking away or blaming that person for what they’re living, or I can ask myself what power do I have in this moment to be of help? Better yet, I can ask the person who is suffering: What do you need?

Much suffering comes from power unchecked with compassion, and much suffering comes from feelings of powerlessness. When we feel trapped with no recourse, no escape, and no control, we are more likely to experience that state of “learned helplessness” that resembles depression. Anxiety, too, is another facet of powerlessness, in which we respond to our lack of control with rigidity and mental strategies to gain illusory control.

These states of being become ironic. When a person feels powerless, often they exert an inordinate amount of control over their environment. Think of a person who blows up about the slightest provocation or who convinces others to tend to their needs by constantly emphasizing their own fragility. This person is not lying. They have no power inside, no resources to manage their inner distress, and therefore must control their surroundings with whatever strategies they know. Disowning power in this way contributes to relationships fraught with unspoken assumptions, fears, and resentments. Accepting our power does not mean we can or will do everything by ourselves, but it means we can ask and negotiate to make sure our needs are met.

No matter what condition we are in, something is possible. When I feel powerless or overwhelmed, I ask myself, “What power do I have now?” Sometimes the answers surprise me. I may have the power to ask for more information, ask for help, to run away, to avoid or engage. I may find he power to accept the situation I’m in, paradoxically revealing a new way out.

Power begins in our bodies. I might be able to move a hand, to blink, feel or hear, I can listen or speak.  If anything, I may have the power to keep breathing. If I can breathe, I am alive, and something is possible.

This is part three of a series of posts for the Pagan Values Project and working with the values from the Charge of the Star Goddess.