Metaphors of Power

I have a problem with the concept of power. When I think of power, I think first of power exercised over vulnerable individuals and populations. It seems that “power” too often means power over, the power to intimidate, to bully, to take advantage, in short, to hurt and to harm. What immediately comes to my mind is the power of child abusers over their victims, legislatures denying basic human rights to LGBTQ persons, of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un using the threat of nuclear missiles to bully South Korea and attempt to bully the rest of the world, of government officials wielding hateful power over immigrants and native peoples and promising to cut services that have enhanced the quality of life for many people. And the list goes on.

I know there are other metaphors of power out there. So, in a sense, this column is an attempt to call to my own mind some of those more life-giving, more spiritually healthy metaphors. I invite you to come along with me, to read these slowly and thoughtfully, and to reflect on how they might inform your own relationship to power. Does any of them hold the potential to help heal whatever wounds you may carry from having been the victim of abusive power? And if you are not wounded individually, consider that you may be an ally or member of a group that is being singled out.

The metaphors that are most meaningful to me often come from the natural world:

  • Storms, whether wind or rain or thunder and lightning, for all their destructiveness and though they can be lethal, engage and excite me. I’m in awe of their power. I recall once as a high school student standing on the back porch of the small house where we lived as the wind lifted a huge pine tree straight up out of our backyard. Not the smartest move in that kind of a storm! Would I do it again? Very likely.
  • Then there is the strength and power of the air itself, which can support a Boeing 747 that can leave the ground with a maximum take-off weight of 987,000 pounds. Even though I understand a (very) little bit about lift and such, this still amazes me.
  • The Colorado River, over time, created the wonder we know as the Grand Canyon.
  • The molten material at the center of the Earth, forcing its way through the Earth’s crust, created what we now know as the country of Iceland, as well as other places.
  • There is power as well in the plant that persistently works its way through the smallest crack in the hardest granite.
  • Then there’s one of my favorite things to photograph, trees right at timberline, warped into all sorts of interesting shapes by the weather they endure, hanging on anyway.
  • The power of the moon creates the tides and affects our bodies.
  • The ocean itself originally gave life to everything that lives, and for at least some of us, links us in spirit with the entire web of life.
  • Finally, there is amazing power in the way that some animals and birds, by the power of instinct, migrate long distances with astonishing accuracy.

The realm of human life offers up others metaphors:

  • Power and struggle and promise unite in the breathtaking power of a woman laboring to birth her child.
  • There is great power in speaking out from our own vulnerabilities. I’m keenly aware of this when I speak to groups about childhood sexual abuse, or when I hear the response of a class of teachers-in-training when a volunteer shares the experience of being a student on the autism spectrum.
  • “I’m a trans man/trans woman, and this is my experience.”
  • There is persuasive power in love, with all the openness required of us to truly love and to be loved, knowing that we or the one we love will surely die, and wrenching separation will come.
  • There is power in the persistence of those struggling with physical or mental illness, who arise in the morning, live their day, rest if possible, and get up again the next morning to do it again, day after day.
  • Those who risk speaking out when it is not safe to do so, who speak truth to power, demonstrate yet another way that power can be used for good, to upbuild rather than to tear down.

What are the metaphors of power that speak to you? Are they positive or negative?

The Reverend Tom Schade writes:

My friends,
There is a power at work in the universe….
It is a creative, sustaining, and transforming power
and we can trust that power with our lives….
It will sustain us whenever we take a stand on the side of love;
whenever we take a stand for peace and justice;
whenever we take a risk.

Trust in that power.
We are, together, held by that power. (abridged from Worship Web)

Rev. Julia