Photo Credit: Stuart Pettican
In her fourth and final blog for the iVillage blog series CelebVillage, multiplatinum-selling singer Alanis Morissette writes about why power struggles are pointless -- and how we can stop trying to one-up each other.
I am very sensitive to the interactions I have with people. Whether it’s a momentary glance in an elevator, or a deep philosophical conversation over dinner, or a brush-by in a café, I feel (sometimes exhaustingly) attuned and affected by the subtle exchanges that pass seemingly benignly between us as human ships. Being a sensitive empath is a beautiful thing as an artist, and it fosters a deep burning curiosity about why we do the things we do.
There is no more a curiosity than the one I have toward how we struggle for power with each other. Certainly I’m no stranger to the jousting and fighting for the one-up position and the resignation and despondency/anger that goes with the reduced/inferior position. It has dawned on me how subtle our assessments of who is better than whom can be. These assessments and struggles for power happen almost everywhere I look, and I find myself compelled to inquire into the heart of what I believe underlies it.
Beyond sanctioned competitions like those in sports arenas and reality TV shows, we seem to compete with each other in a myriad of ways by using our chips, status, levels of experience and stages and places in life. The one-up-(wo)man-ship-ing pervades so many seemingly innocuous and day-to-day interactions as to render me spent at the end of most days out in the world.
I have been affected by society’s programming and conditioning like anyone else, and have spent most of my life thinking there were only two places to fall on the continuum: above everyone or below them. Not liking the latter, my aspiration was to secretly (or not so secretly) achieve dominance. (I would only risk the inferior obliteration role for times where I felt I was in over my head OR if I thought that the inferior role would allow me to secretly gain the upper hand at a later time. To use the metaphor of animals, I would go tiger mostly, unless I was with another tiger. Then I would check their teeth and if they were pointy, I’d feign docile cat, only to pounce and gain the upper hand later. Ha. Wearying! Embarrassing! Futile! Comical!)
Inside this tiresome rivalry and struggle-for-power mindset, the horizontal journey of our lives gets turned on its’ side and becomes rungs in a vertical hierarchical ladder of life. And it’s this constant gauging of where we stand on this ladder that takes all the fun and potential comradeship out of life! This act of assessing whether we are "above" or "below" others is a ruthless, internal, ongoing, and often shame-filled and private one, and we do it hundreds of times a day. And it is never leads to any kind of inner peace.
The answer to how we gauge whether we are better or worse than someone is found within how we measure up to our deeply held belief systems that keep this power struggle alive on the planet.
1.The fear of scarcity: The thought that there’s not enough love/time/money/approval/patience/power to go around fuels most competitions, power struggles and wars on the planet. Whether it is found on the schoolyard, within our religions, within our offices, our nations, on our red carpets or within our homes, it’s a pervasive belief, and creates so many of the ills we see in the world.
2.The thought that we are separate beings: This value system keeps us at odds with each other, and sets up the win-lose battle at the heart of our struggles, large and small. Through this lens, we believe that if someone else loses, that’s their loss, and we remain unaffected. We keep ourselves locked in the loneliness and depressing sense of disconnection that comes from such a separatist belief.
3.Defining our power by how we stack up against our given value systems of the day: This starts by begging the question, Who sets the standards of what we value in the world? Well, WE do. And we do it in small and large ways:
-- Our families: Our families tell us what is valued, thereby what our power is in our home and the world at large. Basically, what is approved of by mama and papa (and grandma and grandpa too) is what wins and gets the approval. Certainly, parents are well-meaning enough, but when who we are differs from what is valued in our house, is it any wonder why we have barely any dregs of self-valuation available after being hammered with their agenda?
-- Our community: Hollywood and Portland and fishing villages in Thailand and monasteries in Tibet, Harvard, Vipassana retreats and Olympic or military training camps all have very different value systems, all of which, depending upon which community, school, or group we find ourselves in, tells us where we will derive our sense of power.
-- The planetary culture: Things like nuclear power, economic power, and corporate power are the larger more valued entities that have far-reaching effects on our sense of self and the sustainability of life on this planet. In this value system, any personal aspiration that doesn’t respect consumerism is overlooked as naïve and powerless. From this perspective, it’s a dog-eat-dog world and you eat or are eaten. So, is there any wonder why we growl at those we perceive might threaten our rung on the climb?
-- The era in which we live: We have to take into account the ongoing shifts of standards of beauty, wealth/inflation, and social trends. I remember when it began to be super-hip to be charitable in Hollywood, and everyone’s sense of power was affected by how philanthropic and charitable they were. This had not been the case even 10 years prior. This shift was palpably felt.
All these cultures, values and beliefs create standards by which we quietly measure ourselves, yet all of these standards shift and change, and they aren’t necessarily even our values! Herein lies the flaw of having us define our worth in accordance to these moving targets! It would be irresponsible to have our senses of self fluctuate with these tides! With these changing value systems are we doomed to claw at each other’s eyeballs just to give ourselves a false and temporary sense of superiority? How exhausting. How then are we to create a sense of personal power not based on the erroneous fear that only a chosen few can win?
I believe we have an antidote that would eradicate our animalistic battles. One, believing that there is ENOUGH of all that we want. There is enough time, love, opportunity, affection, attention, power, ideas. And with that being the case, there is nothing we need to fight each other over in order to gain any kind of upper hand.
Two, believing that we are inextricably and spiritually connected, that the harm I inflict on another is the harm I inflict on myself, and vice versa. That this kind of win-win partnership mindset is the only way for us to achieve the peace that we all crave.
And, finally, since value systems are constantly shifting, we need to define our power internally rather than externally. We need to look no further than the very fact that we exist and that we have value for being here. We are as unique as snowflakes falling from the great cloud of life – our value is inherent. It is our birthright. It is constant, unwavering and nothing less than miraculous. Any messages fed to us when we were tiny kids that say anything other than that our core selves are fascinating and precious is an outright lie. Every choice we make and every passion we follow would be borne from this awareness.
In this way, we become spiritual and social activists. We take what our cultures value (wealth, fame, sexualized beauty, youth, intelligence, status) and we replace or add to it (even if only in our own hearts) with what WE prioritize and value. Maybe it’s things like community, contemplation, intimacy, humility, compassion, connection, empathy, vulnerability, passion, rest, presence, inspiration and inclusiveness.
Perhaps if we lived with this knowledge of our inherent worth, that we are deeply connected, and that there is PLENTY to go around we’d define power in a whole different way. And suddenly we wouldn't have to fight each other for it anymore, because we’d know there was nothing to fight FOR. We’d step out of just operating from our fear/animal/survival selves, and heighten our consciousness together.
Knowing our unique places in life would help identify us, not rank our souls. Maybe we’d just stare at each other more, and behold each other with fascination rather than posturing, comparing and injuring each other. Maybe we’d just drink our lattes and ask each other what our names are, and chuckle at how unique and powerful we all are.
And then maybe this innate sense of value, connection and abundance that’s been sitting there patiently the whole time in each of us, like little pilot lights, can begin to heat the whole house, the whole planet, and beyond.