In Praise of Power
In America, we have set up the perfect system for creating a lot of forceful men but not nearly enough powerful men. Powerful men, though, is what the world needs now more than ever.
Forcefulness is born in boyhood. You know the tune: Boys don’t cry. Get over it. Do it yourself. Don’t be a baby/pussy/faggot. Go, fight, win. And on and on.
The reward for adhering to these rules might be a prideful smile from Dad, a pat on the back from our peers, or no response at all, from anyone, which, oddly, motivates us to follow the rules in the future. The punishment for breaking the rules might be the silent treatment from the people who approval we week (which produces uncertainty); ridicule from adult men, parents, and peers (which produces shame); and, at the extreme end, verbal or physical beatings (to which many men owe their hiding and hair-trigger tempers).
This system of rewards and punishments breeds fear, disconnection, and the absence of purpose. It pushes some men inward toward isolation, self-loathing and self-destructive behavior (overeating, alcoholism, suicide). It tugs other men outward into grandiosity, hatred of the “other,” and verbal, emotional, physical and sexual violence.
Then we grow up. We get pumped full of testosterone (a phenomenon that few of us had helps to understand). Our energy increases. We get strong. We get sexual. We are told to sit down and stop talking so much. We wiggle. We act out. Repeat. Repeat. We get dangerous.
As this powerful social system of rewards and punishment is being established, no one in our life is also explaining us to ourselves, without shaming and blaming. No one is inviting us to pay attention to our bodies, the storehouse of all this energy, all this physical pain and pleasure. No one in our life is asking us to pay attention to our emotions, that aspect of human experience that ensures we can connect to others. And no one in our life is asking us to pay attention to the sometimes lucid, sometimes strange, sometimes violent and often sexual thoughts in our minds.
When these three aspects the human experience – body, emotions and mind – are ignored or pushed away, boys – and the bigger boys they become – they become disconnected from their energy and their physical pain and pleasure. They become distant or hyperemotional, making it difficult to connect with others. They retreat into hyper-rational or fantastical thinking that makes it hard to live in the real world.
Sound like anyone you know?
Power, distinct from force, is what arises when a man experiences himself as confident in his core, connected in his heart and clear in his mind. There are far too few examples of these men in the public eye and those who are in the public eye don’t talk much about it. These are the men recognized for their wisdom, quiet strength, commitment, sensitivity, inclusiveness, decisiveness, contribution, creativity and the kind of resourcefulness of which the world is in dire need.
While force is cultivated slowly through silence, shame and blame, power is cultivated, slowly, when the important people in his life point a boy or man toward his own lived experience, moment to moment, day to day.
They ask him what he is sensing, what he’s feeling, what he’s thinking, how he’s feeling connected or not. They don’t take “fine” or “nothing” for an answer. They’re patient while he does this strange, new kind of inquiry. When he answers, they listen. They accept. They do not ask because they want to know about the experience. They ask because they want him to know about the experience.
Because when a man knows … shift happens.
As a leadership coach who works with men, I see these shifts all the time. Much faster than you’d expect, when men begin to experience themselves rather than perform their imagined idea of who they ought to be, they begin to “get it.”
A Call to Action
If what we really mean when we call on men to “step up” is that we want men to cultivate a sense of personal power – of vision and compassion and confidence that will help us address our most pressing collective problems – then we could begin by saying so explicitly. No doubt, most men would appreciate such unambiguous communication. Then, we could provide men with the language and the physical and emotional training, as well as the positive support, they need to overcome their cultural-familial-educational conditioning.
No matter how harmful and inexcusable we may be to ourselves, in our relationships, in industry, in politics, men are not the problem. They never were.
The way we talk to – and don’t talk to – our boys is the problem. Collectively, we must get very clear about this. We must chant it like a mantra every day. And we must all do some things differently.
In our conversations, we must compel the men in our lives to pay attention to their bodies. We must compel them to pay attention to their hearts. We must compel them to think clearly and logically about the causes and effects of action. We must show them the destructive consequences of force and the creative consequences of power.
If we do this, all of us, every day, one by one, the men in our life will begin to step up.
Do you want to be part of creating a kinder, more inclusive society?