Apr 23, 2014

Assuming Control

I am disturbed by the current trend to talk about power only in negative terms. In the apparent presuppositions, it is assumed to be intrinsically linked to manipulation and control. My attempt in this post is to de-couple my point from any particular system or specific leader, and I will certainly refrain from referring to anything, shall we say, mystical.

The fact is that we all have power — indeed the only way that people have power over us is if we give it to them. Accusing people of taking control reveals an unfortunately shallow perspective of how power works. This is why calling out leaders for having too much power is generally ineffectual. We’d be better served talking to the people giving them power. But then, instead of levelling a simplistic accusation at an arbitrary target, we’d have to delve into the complex inner workings of individual motivation — a phenomenon made all the murkier as numbers rise and momentum grows. That’s a very complicated puzzle. Let’s start with something simpler.

Power works in two different basic economies: fear and hope.

Where people unite behind either fear or hope, they yield their power to leaders who they believe will effect their desires. That power transfers in many ways, some of them subtle: thought, word and action. Often power is transferred through money which is really a surrogate power, empowering a leader with few reservations.

But yielding power isn’t just descriptive — it is also prescriptive.

We should yield to leaders who we believe will effect our goals and aspirations, who catalyse things we perceive to be beneficial. In fact, we should do that willingly, cheerfully and often (while also recognising that what we believe is beneficial.

Of course, bad things happen when yielding power is held to as an absolute. But equally bad things happen when not yielding power is viewed as an absolute.

The problem with the kind of cynicism that I see dominating many conversations about power is that it wilfully ignores the good that power has done, and can do. Not only that, if power is only negative, we cause a self-defeating short-circuit. It goes like this: if power is bad, then anyone who has power is bad, so power itself should be abdicated, thereby turning hapless victimhood into the unwitting ideal. But hapless victims are clearly not the desired goal of people who clamour against power — victimhood is usually what they’re clamouring, and uniting(!), against!

We could certainly stand to improve (and nuance) our understandings of power. If we don’t, in our cognitive dissonance, we run the risk of accidentally empowering the things we don’t want, and disempowering the things we do.

The way forward is to stop vilifying power itself. Additionally, we need to stop viewing power as something outside of ourselves. We need to regularly inventory what power we have, where it’s coming from, and the reasons we choose to yield it. Power belongs to people, which means it will never be perfect.

But when we choose hope and love as our primary motivation, power can be good — very good.

Jan 22, 2014

Another Old Another New

Here’s to memories fading into impressions.
Here’s to learning more about what’s important, and how to cherish it.
Here’s to never forgetting.
Here’s to also letting go.

Here’s to fresh starts and new beginnings.
Here’s to smiles overwhelming the prim restrictions so valiantly imposed on them.
Here’s to miraculous near-misses. And miraculous recoveries.
Here’s to laughing mountains back down into molehills.

Here’s to allowing our minds to wander, and courageously trying to follow.
Here’s to imagining that one day we’ll be able to see through all the irony.
Here’s to learning to fear less and hope more.
Here’s to allowing ourselves to be edited by the people we love the most.

Here’s to admitting that what we deserve is seldom the same as what we think we deserve.
Here’s to a growing awareness fuelled by gratitude.
Here’s to trusting our friends enough to lower our guard. And having some friends left.
Here’s to letting ourselves deeply feel again. Though it may remind us why we’d stopped.

Here’s to surprise, that fickle, capricious beast.
Here’s to joy — may it always transcend surprise.
Here’s to always believing in something better.
Here’s to living to the brim.

Here’s to now.
Here’s to us.

Dec 11, 2013

The Heavy Weight of Freedom

Cringing in regret is my cardio. – Julieanne Smolinski


When I was about 14, I went for a 2nd session at a kind of survival-camp affiliated with my boys-only high school. Situated in the the wild mountain region of Zimbabwe (the country I grew up in), the land was half pine-forest and half scrub-brush — expansive, sprawling and desolate. About 18 of us attended at any given time, and we were all about 14 years-old that time. One day we were dropped off miles away from base camp with a compass and a map and told to find our way back. The assignment was to make our own way on foot.

After we’d been walking for a few hours together, out of nowhere a big truck rolled up. Some of my peers got the bright idea to flag the truck down. It stopped, and the driver was willing to offer us a ride. I wasn’t going to get on that truck. It was against the rules. It was also putting my trust in a driver, a dilapidated truck and a muddy road that I was entirely unfamiliar with. I’d had a terrifying experience a few years before, where some friends and I had jumped into someone’s open-topped beach-buggy on a whim, and it nearly ended very, very badly.

Despite the best efforts of peer pressure, this time I stood my ground. But the will of the group was set.

I made a last-ditch plea with James, the final kid getting on the truck: I didn’t want to be completely on my own in the remote wilderness. That was also against the rules of the given exercise and my better judgement.

Here’s the thing about this particular request: James was hurting. I can’t remember if it was blisters, or a muscle thing, but he was clearly limping. He had been for some time, and was at that moment in the worst physical discomfort of any of us. In fact, that he was the last getting into the truck was probably more of a sign of his pain than anything else. He really could have used the lift.

But for whatever reason, at my request, James paused with one foot on the truck’s step. He sighed, stepped back, and waved the truck on. We walked together into the truck’s slowly dispersing cloud of dust and spent diesel fuel. Him in constant pain. Me in grinding guilt, feeling selfish and chiding myself for my (probably) baseless paranoia.

We didn’t talk much. There really wasn’t much to say.

We caught up with the guys lounging under a tree after 20 of the longest minutes of my life. They stood up when we got close, and we resumed the journey as a unit. There was some comment made about how it was probably a good thing James and I had walked because we’d set a pace that wouldn’t have made us arrive suspiciously early.

As you may imagine, that provided no comfort for me regarding what I’d put James through. I don’t just mean with the physical pain, but also with the social stigma of aligning with the outcast. (Thankfully, I think James was spared serious recrimination this time around. Maybe the rest of the guys instinctively felt he’d suffered enough.)

Especially in the environment and culture I grew up in, there was very little appreciation for standing against the tide. In a culture of capitulation, the lack of alignment brought about by a person who goes against the flow is fiercely opposed.

By stepping out, I exposed myself.

But it goes deeper: people also don’t like watching someone exhibit courage and freedom, and their hostility can be provoked by jealousy and the discomfort of questioning assumptions.

By stepping out, I also exposed the group.

Courage is a blade that cuts two ways, sparking both innovation and disruption. That remains true no matter how hard we try to separate them, and only concentrate on one or the other. Honestly, then or now, I don’t have a good handle on my motivations for what I did. Wanting the best for others is noble, and I certainly didn’t want consequences of any kind to come to the group — either some vaguely ominous punishment or, worse, a disastrous consequence. But ultimately my choice came down to desperate self-preservation, which doesn’t feel, uh, quite so noble.

What I cringe about most is drawing James into my will. I should have made a better case to the group, and I probably should have been content to stand alone if it came to that. (That’s a tough call for me to make now though, especially when I think back on the vulnerability of a solitary 14 year-old kid in that landscape.)

There wasn’t much about that camp experience that felt safe. The most extreme risks were mitigated, I suppose. (“This climbing rope is strong enough to carry the Land Rover — it can surely carry you!”) But it could only be what it was if it was rugged and at least somewhat dangerous. In that culture (and maybe in others, too), men seemed to be defined simply by their exposure to adversity, rather than how well they could cope with it.

And the weird thing was that it wasn’t just hard, it was also fun. In fact when I got home, I told my parents “That was the most fun I’ve ever had in my whole life! And I’m never doing it again!” One of the things that boys tend to do when you put them in a pine forest is get into a pine-cone fight. I was in a few myself back at base camp. But during a subsequent camp, a stray pine-cone cost one of the boys an eye.


It was never really explained to us, but I think that was the incident that finally terminated the camp. The risks were suddenly made stark and real to the school’s parents and the decision-makers. After rock-climbing up a slippery waterfall, learning to sail a small boat completely unsupervised in a small lake, and just the danger of being all alone in remote African wilderness, the loss of an eye — though horribly sad and completely unnecessary — seems like an anti-climactic ending for such a wild set of experiences.

And all told, I did learn a lot about myself and others in that environment. I’m pretty sure what I learned would baffle my school’s staff and students, though.

I’m less comfortable with acquiescence. And I’m less comfortable with resistance.

I have a sense that it’s not so much that we’re free to choose, as we are not free not to choose. And try as we might, something we never get to choose, or even accurately predict, is the cost of our choices.

If I was to guess, that’s going to be the lesson life will keep teaching me as long as I have left to learn.



My name is Brad, and I'm a recovering mortal.

That's my whole bio on twitter. It doesn't tell people that I'm a husband, a father, tell what kind of job I do, what kind of computer I use to do it, what kind of car I drive to get there or give any other identifiers.

I'm just sharing the most important thing.

I'm addicted to the temporal, but I'm in recovery. I don't even know exactly what that means or what it looks like. But I won't let that stop me.


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