Understanding the Powerless and How to Respond

powerlessI recently wrote about the impact of power in one’s life after reading the book, The Power Paradox. I’m back to reflect on what the book said about what it means to be powerless.

The author says that powerless people are stressed, anxious, and full of shame. Those three things weigh on them every day and put them at a huge disadvantage to the average person. It even makes them more likely to be sick, which only adds to their powerlessness.

To be less powerful is to face greater threats of every kind, especially from people with more power. The powerless, attuned to threats of all kinds, are more likely to experience chronic stress. Dacher Keltner, The Power Paradox:

Hannah: A Picture of Powerlessness

I recently did a study in the book of 1 Samuel, in the Bible. It begins with the story of Hannah. Hannah is the picture of powerlessness, exemplified by her inability to have children. In our culture, many women choose to not have children. But for Hannah, the inability to have children was a badge of shame. She had nothing to offer her community. It evoked pity from her husband and contempt from her husband’s other wife.

The Bible says of Hannah that:

She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”1 Samuel 1:10,11

Hannah was basically saying, God, I’d like some power in my life. I’d like some sense of significance. If you give me a son, I’ll give him back to you to serve as a priest for the rest of his life.

She was offering to give her son up for adoption and let the local priest raise him. Can you imagine praying that? Can you imagine giving up the son you longed to bear?

Maybe we should look past the desperate act to understand the desperate person.

Who prays that kind of prayer? Desperate people pray like that. Hannah was so desperate to have a sense of worth and power…to have a sense of purpose and value…to break free from the oppressive people in her life, that she was willing to give up her son.

Reacting to the Powerless

The unfortunate thing in a case like this is how powerful people react. Powerful people often lack empathy because they can’t understand what it’s like to be powerless and have no control in their life.

I’m sure Hannah’s friends and family said, That’s crazy. What are you doing? Don’t pray that. Your life isn’t so bad. Get over it. Count your blessings. In fact, Hannah’s husband asked the ridiculous question: Aren’t I better than ten sons? …as if she should be happy in life just because he was there to take care of her (along with his other wife.)

Desperate People Do Desperate Things

Powerless people often do desperate things that we don’t understand, and we need to be careful how we respond. For example, maybe a woman quits a job because she is being sexually harassed. She’s desperate. She had to do something, so she just quit. But she didn’t want to tell people the real reason, so people criticize her for ruining her career.

Or maybe a man grows up surrounded by discrimination. He saw his dad passed over for promotions. He saw his mom treated like a servant. He was personally pulled over by the police numerous times without cause.

Over the years his frustration grows. He wants to do something about the injustice. He wants to say something. He’s desperate, and so when he becomes a professional athlete he seizes the moment to make a statement by not standing during the national anthem.

Was it the right thing to do? I don’t know. What IS the right thing to do when you are desperate? People do desperate things that don’t always make sense because they FEEL like they are out of options.

I know there are plenty of people who object to disrespecting the flag and our national anthem. You might be one of them. That’s fine and maybe even good…but is that really the point? Maybe we should look past the desperate act to understand the desperate person.

Empathy for the Powerless

It’s so easy for powerful people to rush to judgment. They can only see an action through their own eyes and if it doesn’t make sense to them, then it’s wrong for everyone else. It’s easy from their position to sit back and say, “I can’t believe they did that. That offends me. I’d never do that.”

Well, that’s because they aren’t powerless. They don’t have their background. They don’t have their level of desperation. Desperate people aren’t always fully rational. They don’t always do what’s right or helpful. It helps to know their story…not to justify their actions but to understand what motivates them.

Maybe instead of criticizing the powerless for their behavior we could try to hear their side of the story. Try to understand them. Try to appreciate their pain and what makes them so desperate. Try to understand what it’s like to feel powerless.

Much conflict comes when the powerful judge the powerless. The powerful come off as self-righteous and the powerless often respond in frustration, not knowing how to break through the insensitivity of the powerful.

The Power Paradox was a good caution to me about this inherent tension. Being a white, Masters educated, male, pastor, with a decent income and intact family puts me in a natural position of power in our culture. I can do many things that others can’t. That’s not something to be proud of. It’s a privilege and a responsibility to use my power well and for the benefit of others. If I lack empathy for the powerless I can easily push them away and lose out on what God might want us to do together.

The Power Paradox wasn’t a perfect book, but the research struck me in a way that made an impact, and for that I’m grateful.

Here’s your reward for reading to the end: My newest book, Return From Exile, is FREE today only on Kindle. Download it here.