Arbitrary power

Around the year 1721, Ben Franklin was indentured to his older brother in a printing business. Though Franklin was to be a printer himself later in life, he hated working for his brother who often beat him and gave him only tedious work. A footnote in his autobiography caught my attention:

“I fancy his harsh & tyrannical Treatment of me, might be a means impressing me with that Aversion to arbitrary Power that has stuck to me thro’ my whole life.”

“Arbitrary power,” I thought. That’s what’s been motivating me too.

Bullies

I also had an older brother with a volatile temper, and as I was growing up in the Bronx, I noticed that the people with power were the ones who were violent or threatened violence. They were uneducated bullies, and I hated that they were the ones in control of things.

Teachers

I was in the 8th grade when I saw that bullies come in other forms too. I still remember my math teacher from that year. She was, to my 13-year-old self, the meanest person I had ever met. The kind of person who wore a permanent scowl and was contemptuous of the people in her charge.

One day, for example, when a lovely hearing-impaired student didn’t respond quickly enough, the teacher yelled: “Is your hearing aid on?!”  She made it clear she was in control and could humiliate any of us.

Once it was my turn. Thinking she had caught me talking and not paying attention, she berated me in front of the class, made me stand up, and asked me the answer to a question. I usually backed down in the face of such aggression, but I managed to give the correct response, much to her chagrin.

I was shaken, and remember crying in the hallway until another, kinder teacher came by to console me.

“Why,” I thought, “is this woman teaching?”

Bosses

Since then, I’ve seen arbitrary power in the form of bosses at work across the many different jobs I’ve had. Most were administrators more than managers or leaders. Some simply didn’t know what to do or know how to relate to people. A few were downright mean-spirited and dysfunctional.

In these cases, too, I bitterly asked myself, “Why are these people in a position of authority over me?”

Arbitrary power at work

“More power to you”

Over time, though, I’ve learned that the universe isn’t fair, at least not in the short-term. There will continue to be bullies, mean teachers, and bad bosses. I’ve also learned that, now knowing each of their individual stories, I needn’t judge them. My anger and resentment wasn’t helping anyone, certainly not me.

What you can do instead is take some control for yourself both by controlling your reactions and by expanding your network. It’s a big world, with more smart, creative, wonderful people and more opportunities for you to make a difference than you could possibly know. You can discover those people, access those opportunities, and shape your life.

As I write this I’m reminded of a phrase my mother would use if you did something good through your own effort: “More power to you.”

I didn’t think about it then, but now I understand that you can interpret that literally. Instead of being a victim of arbitrary power, you can take control yourself. For each of the bullies and bad bosses in your life, you can channel that negative energy into deepening relationships with people who make life better somehow.

When you do that, “more power to you.”