There are topics about which I feel confident and settled in my knowledge and experience to speak with a sense of inner authority. How we transform the legacy of millennia in learning how to respond to those in power eludes me. I keep thinking that I have a piece of the answer, and then I see even more fully how immense the challenge is. Nevertheless, I want to contribute my share to a conversation I didn’t start and which I hope can be ongoing in many circles as we come to see our complicity, both when we have formal power and when we don’t, with maintaining things as they are. I want this conversation to become bigger so that we can tap into our collective wisdom, beyond what I or any one person can offer. I share these thoughts with the humility of knowing I truly don’t know what the way forward is.

Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, speaks more than once about the fact that people in power shit just like everyone else. I remember being startled by the bluntness of this image. For myself, I have preferred a different way of aligning myself with the complete and radical shared humanity of all. I remind myself that whoever the person is I am thinking of was once an infant, and I immediately touch my hope that, at least then, that person was loved. Different as these two methods are, they both point to the same truth, though I doubt that Kundera shares my fervent desire for each person on the planet, including all those who have harmed others, to receive sufficient love that harm would stop. This, for me, is one aspect of being able to transform, within myself, how I respond to power. I want the well-being of the person in power even when I want to oust them from power, even when I want to do everything in my power to stop them from doing further harm.

Gandhi and Mountbatten, last British Viceroy of India

I see this as key, because unless I am able to see the person in power as fully human, brother or sister to me, and unless I can truly wish for their well-being, I don’t believe I have fully liberated myself from the shackles of the consciousness of separation. I want that freedom as the foundation of discernment and choice about how to respond.

The discernment I am seeking is to form my own opinion about the person, free from stereotypes, reactivity, submission, or rebellion. I can entrust myself to a leader in a fully empowered way, knowing that I trust their integrity, vision, and care, and follow willingly and with full empowerment out of that trust. If I don’t find sufficient trust, I can take on the much tougher path of challenging authority with love. Just as much as entrustment is wildly different from submission, challenging authority with love is different from rebellion. And while entrustment is a dictionary word even if it is not commonly used, we don’t even have a word for the kind of challenge I am envisioning. It can take the form of embarking on winning the trust of a leader, becoming their ally in learning to transform their ways. My departed colleague and co-founder of BayNVC, Julie Greene, told a moving story of how she completely transformed her boss’s way of managing her simply by taking on an intention of responding to her boss empathically over months of suffering. Eventually, her boss stopped micromanaging her and their relationship flourished.

Challenging authority with love can take the form of saying “no” without giving up on the person’s humanity or dignity, either personally or collectively. This is my deepest understanding of what Gandhi did with the British authorities, and what enabled them to exit without losing face. The more we want to change the choices of those in power, and, finding them unwilling to join us in peaceful dialogue, the more we must use nonviolent resistance, the more essential it is that we maintain a stance of uncompromising love within our hearts. I see this commitment as the insurance policy that guarantees that our actions are never tainted by judgment or hatred, so that our use of force, when we engage in it, is entirely motivated by a desire to stop harm and create the conditions for dialogue and solutions that work for all, without hatred or desire for revenge. This is, no doubt, a tall order.

Love our leaders without idolizing them, stand up to dictators without hatred, change structures without war – those are the paradoxical challenges of responding to authority. I long for all of us to trust our own humanity, to have a sense of empowerment, to know we can participate in shaping what happens together with those in power. In short, to maintain, in full, both our own humanity and dignity and that of those in power, including those whose actions we abhor. It’s the only way I know to ensure we will not have throwaway people or new dictators.

What Makes It Hard to Reach People in Power?

As challenging as opening our hearts to those in power is, it’s not even enough! Our offer of love and understanding still needs to find its way to that person’s heart, and much of that journey is not ours to predict or control. I have written recently about my failure to support “Jonathan” effectively while working with his company. Considering how much Jonathan trusted me at the outset, and how far away we have moved from that trust, I know I have a lot of learning still ahead of me. None of it is simple.

When I enter into dialogue with anyone, the fundamental premise of it is that through connection we can reach a state in which we both care about both of our needs, thereby forming a shared commitment to a solution that works for both of us. This frame depends on a profound kind of trust: that the other person is human like me. As this applied to Jonathan, for example, I was confident that he would be wholeheartedly committed to creating change once he truly understood the effect of his choices on those who worked in his company. I so completely underestimated the extent of his commitment to having things go his way. Early on, Jonathan said: “Having power means you rarely hear no.” For me, someone with a modest amount of power, this was a wakeup call, reinforcing my own commitment to be open to others’ “no,” even to invite it when there is a power difference between us. For him, I gradually learned, this was a source of comfort and ease: having power meant he didn’t have to negotiate, to show his vulnerability, to ask for what he needed and be in dialogue with others about it. He could just say it, and it would happen. I can see the seductive appeal, both in terms of this very personal level, and in terms of the ease of getting things done. I can see how the cost of his employees’ “yeses” becomes conveniently invisible.

Much has been written about what New York Magazine calls ” The Money-Empathy Gap” – the phenomenon of people with wealth showing less capacity for empathy, compassion, and even ethical behavior, and a higher preoccupation with their own well-being in disregard of others’. My own aha about this phenomenon came when I realized that rising up the ladder, even inheriting money and retaining it, require a willingness, at least to some degree, to get needs met at the expense of others. Sometimes this relationship is direct, as in the case of CEOs whose salaries are orders of magnitude higher than their employees, while at other times the relationship is indirect, even hidden, as in the overall willingness of all of us in affluent countries to get goods produced by devastatingly poor people in faraway countries.

Even though I knew all of this before meeting Jonathan, I didn’t in any way think strategically about what it meant for my relationship with him. I continued to anticipate and trust he would act “like me” and was repeatedly shocked to hear and see behavior that I could only interpret as lack of care. I am still unclear, even after many months of considering this fundamental failure on my part, what I could have done differently. What would be required in order to cross that loss of interest in others that seems to accompany, as both cause and effect, the acquisition of power and wealth?

The Path of Empathy

One possible way forward is to shift the balance from providing feedback to offering empathic understanding. This approach would be based on premise that when people feel fully heard, when they know they matter, they are more likely to be open to hearing from others. I have no doubt that I was providing too much feedback relative to empathy. What I don’t know is how much empathy would be sufficient to make room for the feedback. I am frightened to imagine that there may be people whose emotional needs are so high, whose concern with their own safety and well-being so consuming, and whose lack of trust so extreme that no amount of empathy would be sufficient to open their hearts. Is this fear my own lack of faith, or is it an accurate perception of the level of dysfunction in our money-driven society characterized by a class of CEOs, and especially those at the very top of the largest corporations, who are no longer able to connect empathically with others? If so, what hope would there be for anyone’s attempts to create connection and dialogue across power differences?

Part of the irony of this situation, as I see it, is that whenever someone “buys” their needs through others’ compliance based on fear or reward, they are bound to know, somewhere deep within, that they are outside the web of interdependence and love: those who serve them do not do it because of care. If this conjecture is accurate, then external power doesn’t necessarily feel powerful, which can reinforce the uncaring behavior on the part of those in power. That’s a lot to bridge through love and empathy, and most of us don’t have enough staying power, faith, or even capacity to create and sustain the relationships to create transformation in this way.

The Path of Nonviolent Resistance

Police in Selma, Alabama, block the civil rights march, 1965

Police in Selma, Alabama, block the civil rights march, 1965

The other path is the one taken by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others since: balancing the power of the few by the coming together of the many, thereby creating the conditions that would bring the powerful to the dialogue table.

Not every strike, rally, or sit-in action fits the stringent criteria of this kind of nonviolent resistance. As I understand Gandhi and MLK, they persisted all along in maintaining a loving presence toward the very people whose actions they sought to change. They continued to invite them to dialogue, and they never lost sight of aiming for a solution that would ultimately work for the powerful as well as the masses Gandhi and MLK mobilized. They successfully managed to stay away from “us-them” approaches even while putting enormous pressure on the systems they challenged.

A striking lack of "us-them" at the signing of the Civil Rights Act, 1965

This requirement to maintain a loving stance is only one of the challenges that this path presents. In the current climate of union busting, where the possibility and scope of activity of unions are progressively more restricted, it’s also more and more difficult to imagine how to apply nonviolent resistance within organizations. Even more significantly, dialogue, when successful, can take place between one individual and another, whereas nonviolent resistance requires the coordinated efforts of large groups of people. In the context of USA, in particular, the prospects for such activity have been grim for a while.

I don’t have answers. That’s what I keep coming back to. That’s almost always true. The purpose of this piece, in particular, was to raise questions, not to answer them; to seek companionship in framing the dilemma; to open conversations, hopefully not only my own.

I don’t know how we will reach the people in power. I only know that the task is essential if we are to survive these times and emerge as a species that thrives within the web of life on this planet.


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