Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Reason #4: Personal Power is the Foundation of Equality

Over the years, several people have asked me why I keep this blog.  A lot of it is just about keeping a history of my thoughts and learning.  Some of it is about processing and understanding feelings I find difficult to articulate.  But the sole reason I make it public is that it forces me to be actively accountable for the thoughts and feelings I let shape my world.  Writing them down for all to see reminds me to think/feel them through, study, and question every premise they are built upon.  While I’m still a hypocrite (a.k.a. human) who will probably continue to think one way and live another, I actively try to mitigate that tendency.  I want those who know me to trust that my opinions are formed on purpose and after some pause.  I want them to know that I subject my own thoughts to the same rigor I all too frequently ask of others.

That being said, I don't always love sharing these thoughts.  It brings with it a degree of vulnerability and opens me up to criticism, judgment, and even hatred.  It can and has cost me friends, affection, and respect. I can hope for patience, understanding, and acceptance from others, but we are human, and those things are not always so easily given.  The reason I'm telling you this is that this post, in particular, has become one of the most difficult I've ever written.  It's full of contradictions, hard realities, and perceptions that may not make sense to anybody but me.  This post is about something that I am fascinated by, drawn to, terrified of, and somewhat disgusted by.  
This post is about power.  

Perhaps ironically, I feel both overwhelmed and terrified of sharing some of the perspectives I hold on the subject of power.  I know it is an intimate and difficult topic for many, perhaps especially for women.  For over a year, I have agonized on how to be both empathetic to the struggles of those who feel powerless and assertive about the source and stalk of personal empowerment.  Something I have long considered is that feminism itself is a movement borne out of the desire to help women be and feel more powerful. Feminism wants to enable women to say no, act independently in society, make their own choices and priorities, and nurture a personal identity free from the oppressive and arbitrary “feminine ideal.” I think that’s great, and for the record, I appreciate and admire many of the women who have challenged the misogynistic and unjust laws and customs of their day.  Much of my life has been blessed by their efforts.

 I also acknowledge that the work of gender equality has a long way to go and that there are plenty more unjust and demoralizing laws and customs that systematically disempower women today.  The challenge I see, and the root of my problem with feminism, is that I think much of the focus, name, and tone of modern feminism seems to be subtly counterproductive to the quest for gender equality.  The blame, shame, and judgment hurdled at men (and women) who question feminist dogmas create a divisiveness that ensures more competition than cooperation. That competition generates battles for power that requires there to be winners and losers. Since power battles always offer an unfair advantage to the party currently wielding more power, the odds are perpetually against women. 

Thus, I’ve come to the conclusion that as long as women are battling men for power, we are going to lose. As a woman, that’s morally infuriating.  It fires up my indignation and nurtures feelings of resentment toward men and all of society.  It makes me hypersensitive to behaviors that I deem unjust and causes me to assign malicious intent to anybody who isn’t actively supporting me in my fight for what’s right.

Unfortunately, none of that is helpful.

My resentment does not fix anything.  In fact, it is just distracting. My wise mother has a saying that “Resentment is the anger of the powerless.”  While I know she doesn’t intend it as a cause-and-effect statement, I think it very much is one.  I think when we nurture feelings of resentment, we allow our anger to disempower us. It blinds us from objectively assessing our options and diligently, though perhaps indirectly, navigating toward our personal goals and desires.  

As one who easily falls into feelings of resentment and indignation, I hate this reality.  Especially when injustice occurs, I feel the rage of resentment and passion for justice so strongly it makes me FEEL powerful. In a fit of indignation, I relish in thoughts of vengeance and moral superiority, to the point where it numbs the hurt I felt in the first place. In combination, that feeling of power, superiority, and disconnection from pain is incredibly intoxicating.

However, as this last election cycle has reminded me, the intoxication of indignation may make us feel powerful, even righteous, but it doesn’t get us what we want.  This holds true not only for politics but for social justice endeavors as well.  As long as we are harboring or perpetuating feelings of resentment and anger, we will never realize the kind of gender equality (or social equality) we desire. We may feel powerful in our righteous anger, but that same anger will inhibit us from actualizing the ideals we hold.  Thus, I think it important to distinguish between “feeling powerful” and real personal power.  

Because we are finite, mortal, and sentient beings, the feeling of power is a fickle illusion. It is a perception that we are able to control our circumstances, make things happen, or coerce others into compliance. But if life has managed to teach me one thing, it’s that I have very little control over my circumstances and no control over other human beings.  I do, however, have a great deal of control over my perceptions, beliefs, and choices.  It may take constant effort and learning, but I get to decide how I think, feel, and act. I determine my values, goals, and priorities. I define what things like love, friendship, education, service, respect, and spirituality mean in my life. And while others may influence or add color those perceptions, I am the final authority on what my internal world looks like, as well as what it doesn’t.    

That is what makes me powerful. That is the only thing I can truly control. In my theology, that agency (the ability to choose our perceptions, beliefs, and actions) is the feature that enables us to become like God. It is a sacred and powerful thing and needs to be reverenced, cherished, and utilized with wisdom and purpose. I believe very strongly that our agency is the only power we personally wield in life. All other types of power are a product of influence, which requires and depends upon the uncontrollable agency and vulnerability of others.  This makes other forms of power capricious and fleeting--not inherently bad, but ultimately uncontrollable.     

Thus, my #4 issue with feminism is how often the prescribed methods of empowering women is in tackling systemic disadvantages with indignation rather than explicitly identifying and emphasizing the importance of making choices that strengthen our own internal force. As women, we individually need to own, claim, and develop our own personal power if we ever hope to achieve gender equality. All the equal-pay policies and family-friendly scheduling in the world is not going to generate gender equality if women do not believe they are inherently and eternally powerful individuals, worthy of the utmost respect and love. This is because no matter how economically or socially powerful we become, there is still a need for us to feel individually powerful in order to avoid subjugation in other ways. 

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