The Limits of Personal Power and The Dangers of Ignoring Them
I have a lot of casual friends on social media sites – it’s one of the benefits of writing in a public forum. Even if we don’t agree on religion or politics or other matters, I like seeing a wide variety of opinions and outlooks in my newsfeed.
The downside is that I see a lot of misinformation, a lot of half truths, and a lot of damaging religion. Perhaps none are more common than the many variations on the idea of unlimited personal power.
Let’s face it – a lot of people come into Paganism (and especially into witchcraft) in search of power. Some are members of marginalized groups, some have had traumatic experiences, and some simply want to be as strong as they can be. These are all good, valid reasons to pursue personal power. Paganism is growing in part because it shows people how they can reclaim the power that is their birthright and how they can learn to exercise it for the greater good.
Most of the problems flow from the attractive but erroneous idea that your personal power is really limitless. You don’t have to do anything but recognize it – you’re already exercising unlimited power. And that means you create your reality!
Sounds great, right? So why doesn’t it feel great? Probably because it doesn’t match our life experiences. If I really had unlimited power, blog posts would go from concept to finished in 15 minutes and North Texas would have an epidemic of rude drivers being vaporized.
So like so many other weak religious ideas, rather than abandoning it a rash of excuses and rationalizations have been invented to prop it up.
“This is teaching you a lesson you must learn.” “You chose this before your incarnation.” “This is your destiny.” “Your belief isn’t strong enough yet” (since when was belief the key to an effective Pagan practice???).
I see a constant parade of these bad ideas on my Facebook feed. They’re dangerous and damaging, but there’s just enough truth in them to make them attractive to people who want them to be true.
The True Side
The idea that you always have power in any situation is a good thing. Do we truly havefree will, or does fate control our lives? We can never know for sure, but if we believe we have free will we’re more likely to take action to make things better. And taking action is far more likely to make things better than doing nothing.
Taking responsibility for our lives is a good thing. Even if bad things aren’t your fault, your best chance of making them better is to examine the situation, come up with a plan, and then work the plan. Perhaps other people should fix them and maybe they will, but you’re the one who’s most invested in getting things fixed. Even if we can’t fix the problems, we can live virtuously and valiantly in spite of them.
Both high and low magic remind us that while we can control nothing, we can influence everything – and sometimes our influence is greater than we think.
The False Side
Believing you have some power in any situation is helpful. Believing you have unlimited power is not.
Oversimplified answers don’t solve complicated problems. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in dealing with serious diseases. “Eat this!” “Stop eating that!” “You know marijuana cures that, don’t you?” “You’d feel better if you’d lose weight.” Or perhaps the worst “Stop letting the disease have power over you!”
The human body is a wonderful, beautiful, incredibly complex thing. There is rarely one solitary cause for any problem, and there is rarely one solitary cure. Cancer is complicated. Heart disease is complicated. Aging is complicated – as I’m learning first-hand. Good health combines spiritual approaches, natural approaches, and the best of modern medicine.
Randomness is more prevalent than we like to admit – the clockwork model of the universe is badly outdated. Bad stuff happens and sometimes it happens to you. So does good stuff. It doesn’t always have a direct cause.
Nature is bigger than you are. Stand in front of a tornado and you’ll learn exactly where you are on the scale of power… though you may not survive the lesson.
As with health matters, a belief that people have unlimited power leads to victim blaming. If you’re suffering and you have unlimited power, then it’s your own fault if you don’t stop it, right? This ignores the complexity of many situations and it ignores the effects of systems.
Why don’t the poor just get jobs? Maybe there are no jobs. Then why don’t they move? Maybe they don’t have the resources to move. Keep peeling away at the onion and you learn that poverty is a complex situation and the systems and institutions that work fine for the rich and OK for the middle class simply don’t work for the poor. But if you assume everyone has the power to do anything you’ll assume people are poor because they choose to be poor.
And if the poor choose to be poor and the sick choose to be sick, then we have no moral obligation to help them. if everyone is working through some set of cosmic lessons, why should we intervene?
A More Powerful Approach
Developing real power – personal or otherwise – requires seeing things as they are. Not as you wish they were and not as you fear they might be, but as they really are. Define problems, look for causes and remember that correlation is not causation. Keep peeling the onion – there are many layers to address.
This is perhaps the most effective use of magic – to teach yourself to see things as they truly are.
Stop looking for easy answers. Easy answers may make us feel good, but they’re rarely helpful. Get comfortable with complexity. If someone tells you they have a simple solution to a big problem, they’re probably trying to sell you something.
Get comfortable with randomness. Not everything happens for some grand reason. Spend less time looking for “lessons” and more time looking for solutions. You’ll learn plenty of lessons along the way, although you probably won’t recognize them as such till long after the fact.
Attack systems, not people.
The Facebook memes are partially true – even the weakest among us is an incredibly powerful being, capable of creating change (for better or for worse) in any situation. But that half truth is dangerous. Our power is not unlimited, and pretending it is causes us to act ineffectively with ourselves and unethically with others.