by Joanna Macy (Mar 01, 2013)
The word power comes from the Latin possere, meaning “be able.” The kind of power I will focus is not about dominating others but about being able to address the mess we’re in. Rather than being based on how much stuff or status we have, this view of power is rooted in insights and practices, in strengths and relationships, in compassion and connection with the web of life. […]
When we respond to a situation in a way that promotes healing and transformation, we are expressing power. Nelson Mandela’s contribution to end apartheid in [the part of the Planet we call] South Africa offer and wonderfully inspiring example. Because Mandela didn’t have the authorization of the authorization of the African National Congress’s organizing committee, beginning talks with the enemy could have been seen as betrayal or as selling out. Taking this first step for peace took courage, determination, and foresight. Inner strengths like these are often thought of as things some people just have and other’s don’t. These qualities, however, are linked to skills we can develop and practices we can learn. Thinking of courage and determination as things we do rather than things we have helps us to develop these qualities. They emerge out of our engagement with actual situations and the dynamics that arise from our interactions. This approach is relational, and we call it power-with. […]
Power-with is based on synergy, where two or more parties working together bring results that would not have occurred if they had worked alone. Because something new and different emerges out of the interaction, we can think of it as “1 + 1 = 2 and a bit.” This is another way of saying “the whole is more than the sum of the parts.”
Emergence and synergy lie right at the heart of power-with. They generate new possibilities and capacities, adding a mystery element that means we can never be certain how a situation will go just from looking at the elements within it. We can know the strength of cooper and of tin yet still be surprised by how much stronger bronze is, which comes from mixing the two together. The same thing can happen when we interact with others for a shared purpose.
Water is H2O,
Hydrogen two parts
But there is also a third thing that makes water
And nobody knows what that is.
[…] The concept of power-with contains hidden depths. First, there is the power of inner strengths drawn from us when we engage with challenges and rise to the occasion. Second, there is the power arising out of cooperation with others. Third, there is the subtle power of small steps whose impact only becomes evident when we step back and see the larger picture they contribute to. And last, there is the energizing power of an inspiring vision that moves through and strengthens us when we act for a purpose bigger than ourselves. All these are products of synergy and emergence; they come about when different elements interact to become a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
At every level, from atoms and molecules to cells, organs, and organisms, complex wholes arise bringing new capacities into existence. At each level, the whole acts through its parts to achieve more than we could ever imagine from examining the parts alone.
So what new capacities emerge when groups of people act together to form a larger complex social system?
Our technologically advanced society has achieved wonders our ancestors could never have envisioned. We’ve put people on the Moon, decoded DNA, and cured diseases. The problem is that this collective level of power is also destroying the World. Countless seemingly innocent activities and choices are acting together to bring about the sixth mass extinction in our Planet’s history. […]
The concept of emergence is liberating because it frees us from the need to see the results of our actions. Many of our Planet’s problems, such as climate change, mass starvation, and habitat loss, are so much bigger than we are that it is easy to believe we are wasting our time trying to solve them. If we depend on seeing the positive results of our individual steps, we’ll avoid challenges that seem beyond what we can visibly influence. Yet our actions take effect through such multiplicities of synergy that we can’t trace their causal chain. Everything we do has ripples of influence extending far beyond what we can see.
When we face a problem, a single brain cell doesn’t come up with a solution, though it can participate in one. The process of thinking happens at a level higher than just individual brain cells –it happens through them. Similarly, there’s no way that we personally can fix the mess our World is in, but the process of healing and recovery at a planetary level can happen through us and through what we do. For this to happen, we need to play our part. That’s where power-with comes in.
–Joanna Macy in Active Hope.