Power and Responsibility

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In a culture dominated by power hungry individuals it’s easy to forget that countless people are afraid of their power and, instead of developing it through unfolding their own unique potentialities, shy away from it and instead latch on to some perceived stronger entity. They gain their sense of power and purpose not through personal accomplishment but through association. A benign example of what we’re talking about is sports fans, who have just about nothing to do with the outcome of games but live and die with every play just the same. They bask in the glory of victory and wallow in the shame of defeat, as if those victories and defeats were their own.

The reason for trading personal power for power through association is that personal power implies responsibility and responsibility produces existential anxiety. When we are aware of our own power, of our ability to use that power to shape our environments, we also become aware of our responsibility for the consequences of our power. And unless we’re selfish, sadistic monsters this felt responsibility is unsettling, it fills us with anxiety around whether our actions will lead to productive or destructive results.

Of course the sense of powerlessness produces painful existential anxiety too. No one wants to be alone and naked against the vast cosmos, no one wants to feel powerless in the face of the machinations of man and nature, no one wants to be swept along by the tides of uncertainty without a paddle.

Power by association seems to solve the anxiety problem from both sides. In the power by association setup there’s no personal responsibility and at the same time no sense of powerlessness. By latching onto a perceived stronger entity and simultaneously making that stronger entity responsible for consequences existential anxiety is kept at bay.

But the price is high. The one chance to self-actualize, the one chance to become fully human by becoming a fully unique individual, is sacrificed on the altar of anxiety reduction. All of those potentialities remain just that, potentialities. Those seeds are never watered. People who choose power by association as an unconscious means of anxiety reduction never become what they were meant to be, they leave the best of themselves undeveloped.