Many years ago, I was in charge of media relations for the opening of a national memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The event was big news, and any member of the press corps who wanted more information on the story had to come to me.
I had, ahem, ultimate power! I decided who got the interview and when. I decided the schedule, and where the major media would sit. I'll admit that at times this power went to my head. When everyone around you acts like you have a superior place in the universe, you begin to think you're a god!
But I quickly learned a great truth about this kind of power. The moment the event was over, I was literally yesterday's news. One week, I had power over the woman who books interviews and guests at CNN; the following week, she couldn't remember who I was!
This lesson taught me that power is always given. I didn't create my own ability to be the media gatekeeper. That was given to me by my client. Yet, we're tempted to think that power is something we do for ourselves, the result of our own merits and efforts. "Different philosophical systems have lured people into believing that they are their own absolute master," says Pope John Paul II, "able to decide their own destiny and future in complete autonomy, trusting only in themselves and their own powers" (Faith and Reason #107).
We’re tempted to think that power is something we do for ourselves, the result of our own merits and efforts.
In our culture, we can be easily enticed into using our God-given intelligence, abilities, access and money to create our own personal kingdom. It's incredibly seductive—the feeling that the world is yours! You get to set the agenda; you get to oversee how and when things will get done.
In this self-made universe, you begin to be treated as superior to everyone else—and often start believing it's true. No one can deny the allure of shaping the world to fit your own desires. Yet the culture's proposal for personal power still leaves us unsatisfied. Why?
A Selfish Isolation
The problem with being addicted to power is the side effects: selfishness, rivalry—and anxiety. Deep down, we know that power goes to the one who has the most cash, moxie, brains, etc., and while we might be on top today, someone else will eventually come along who has even more.
In situations like these, "entitled" men and women grab as much power as possible, while those with less talent, intelligence, money and resources are pushed to the margins, increasingly invisible to those who command our culture. Inevitably, powerful people can become truly blind to the unique dignity and talents of the "support staff" around them. The more preoccupied you become with your self—your needs, your desires, your thoughts—the more isolated you become from the interior beauty of the other. This isolation causes a terrible loneliness, even in the midst of many people, leading to a life of unsettling anxiety and often, despair.
Contrast this cultural model of personal power with that of Jesus of Nazareth. Christ's teaching about power turns the prevailing cultural model on its head: "The one among you who is greatest shall behave like the least, and the one who leads like one who serves" (Luke 22:25-7).
What could be the reasoning behind such a proposal? Isn't this humble stance a sure-fire path to allowing what little power we have to be usurped by someone richer, stronger, and more intelligent? How can such a stance reasonably make sense in this dog-eat-dog world?
Power From Above
Jesus Christ "did not consider his equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself becoming obedient unto death, even death on the Cross," declared St. Paul (Phil 2:6-8). Read that passage again carefully. Jesus Christ, second Person of the Blessed Trinity, did not embrace the trappings of a god! He sought out the powerless and lowly and treated them like kings and queens. He humbly washed the feet of the men who looked to him for every necessity in life. He loved women with such a startling new dignity that righteous men were moved to drop their killing stones.
The more preoccupied you become with your self—your needs, your desires, your thoughts— the more isolated you become from the interior beauty of the other.
In all of this, the Lord showed us true power in action. In every word and act, Christ pursued a life dedicated to serving every person. With the power of his love for his Father, Jesus showed his disciples how to unite any personal power he had given them back to the One who had sent him.
The decision to defer all personal power back to the Father is a momentous event in the life of a person. It is the decision of a disciple. "Conversion is the change from a hope in the results of my own power, to a new hope reposing entirely in the fact of the living Christ, of the Christ who lives in me," says Msgr. Luigi Giussani. By surrendering ourselves completely to Christ in the life of his Church, we can ensure that any personal power we have been given always rests in his hands. This radical dependence allows us true freedom from the anxiety inherent in both competition and powerlessness.
United with Christ, we become his powerful Presence in the world, transforming isolation into communion. We can steward the gifts we have been given, knowing that we only have dominion over Someone else's creation. "We have this treasure in earthen vessels," says St. Paul, "to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor 4:7).
How blessed we are to share in his power and his glory! A power that can not be usurped by someone who has temporary power over us, a glory that leaves no one we encounter out of a passionate, gloriously human worldview.