The dictionary definition of power is to be in possession of control, authority or influence over others. The definition of the abuse of power is a misuse of power by someone in a position of authority, who can use the power they have to oppress people in an inferior position or to induce them to commit a wrongful act.
It is my belief that we need to understand the root causes of abusive expressions of power, and address those root causes of behaviour as a first step in changing the social structures that allow for such abuse to take place.
The cause of abuse
What would cause those in power to abuse those who are in a subservient position? What would cause a white police officer to place his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, and cause him to die?
The need for power over someone else is a control issue. It is a need to not feel helpless, powerless and at the mercy of someone else. Those who are abusive in their positions of authority are often insecure, and feel the need to ensure that they will not lose their position of dominance. This is especially true if a police officer has racist inclinations and a disdain for those whom he or she is to protect and serve.
There are police officers who are fearful of losing control in their interactions with the public. There are times when police officers are placed in situations where it is truly not possible to be in control, which only intensifies their sense of insecurity and fear and can cause them to overreact.
My experience of the officer who had his knee on George Floyd’s neck was that he seemed to have an ‘I don’t care if you make a video of what I am doing to this non-person’ attitude. He also seemed to have a cold-blooded disdain for the man he ultimately killed. We were looking straight into the eyes of a racist who was lynching a black man. There is no escaping the reality of what each of us was seeing with our own eyes.
In a commentary—”Welcome to the Great Awakening“—Van Jones of CNN suggested that the massive protests about the killing of George Floyd occurred, in part, because all of us—white, black, brown—saw and experienced the lynching, and it was profoundly real for the broader community of humanity.
There is/was no place to avoid or escape the reality of George Floyd’s murder by a white ‘police’ officer. The reality of what happened finally became a reality for all to see and experience. It touched our humanity, and we came together to protest this treatment of one of our fellow human beings. There is no place for such behaviour in a civilized society.
What if we don’t love ourselves?
The historian Paul Farmer wrote:
The idea that some lives matters less, is at the root of what is wrong with the world.
The abuse of others is an act of hostility and is the opposite of love, compassion and kindness. When we see others as an object and a means to an end, rather than an end unto themselves, we cause pain and hurt, and we diminish ourselves and one another.
Think for a moment: What if we, by contrast, were to treat others as we would want to be treated? This is a primary tenet in many religious traditions. Love your neighbour as you would love yourself. But what if your ‘inner critic’ is running your life?
Our Inner Critic is that voice we hear in our inner conversations with ourselves, who always finds fault with what we think, what we do and who we are as people. When we hear ‘love your neighbour as you would love yourself,’ what if we don’t love ourselves?
What if your inner critic told you that you are not good enough? What if we feel emotionally empty and hopeless, or live with a sense of helplessness? What if we are afraid, insecure and filled with resentment, due to emotional and/or physical abuse?
Every person who swears to protect and serve others needs to spend time reflecting on these questions, as part of a mandatory process of self-understanding, before they earn their badge.
To paraphrase Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a filmmaker who relates to issues of equity and is the wife of Gavin Newsom, California’s Governor, “We need to change our culture, by changing our mindset that defines who we are; where we resort to power, domination and aggression towards others, we instead need to relate to others by way of caring, collaboration and empathy.”
If we want to change how we feel about the world, we need to change how we think about the world and the people who inhabit it. Byron Katie wrote, in Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life:
No one has ever been angry at another human being. We’re only angry at our story of them. The world is my perception of it. I see only through the filter of my story.
This is very much true for those who believe that black people are beneath white people and are a threat to the white person’s way of life. This is especially true for those who are supposed to protect and serve all citizens.
Words have power
So, how do we change our perception of the world?
The first step is to acknowledge that our words are powerful and can cause others pain. If we label others in derisive terms, we reinforce our negative perceptions of others, and we set the stage for defensive reactions that only cause deeper divides between individuals and groups of individuals.
If, instead, we treat others as we would want to be treated, then together we can become open to someone else, see one another for who we really are and begin to develop trust and express compassion towards our neighbours. In order to relate to others with compassion, we must first become aware.
Awareness is that part of us that perceives, observes and witness our thoughts, feelings, behaviors and body. It can be quite transformative to realize that you are not what you thought you were, that you are not your feelings, that you are not your beliefs, that you are not your personality, that you are not your ego. You are something other than that, something that resides on the inside, at the innermost core of your being. For the moment we are calling that something awareness, itself.
Such a view of awareness puts our ‘inner critic’ in its place and frees us from its negativity in our lives.
Adyashanti goes on to say,
Suffering occurs when we believe in a thought that is at odds with what is true, what was true and what will be true.
Typically, we are critical about ourselves, our thought, our actions, our abilities, our bodies and the list goes on and on. By continuing to be critical of ourselves, by judging ourselves as not being okay, in essence by believing a lie about ourselves, we are doomed to relive our suffering. Instead of bringing judgment to what we have been thinking and feeling, we have the capacity to bring compassion, this ability to feel empathy for our suffering along with the wish to act on these feelings to alleviate the suffering.
This awareness can transform our lives and those who are part of our lives.
The world of humanity
The Dalai Lama sets the tone for who we are in the world of humanity, regardless of what we or others have said, or the way that others have treated us. When others are hurtful in their speech and actions, they are acting from their unresolved needs and suffering.
Whether one is rich or poor, educated or illiterate, religious or nonbelieving, man or woman, black, white or brown, we are all the same. Physically, emotionally and mentally we are all equal. We all share basic needs for food, shelter, safety and love. We all aspire to happiness and we all shun suffering. Each of us has hopes, worries, fears and dreams. Each of us wants the best for our family and loved ones. We all experience pain when we suffer loss and joy when we achieve what we seek. On this fundamental level, religion, ethnicity, culture and language makes no difference.
Interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. Even tiny insects survive by co-operating with each other. Our own survival is so dependent on the help of others that a need for love lies at the very core of our existence. This is why we need to cultivate a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others.
As was said before, our thoughts determine our feelings. If we want to change our views and feelings about the world and the people who inhabit it, we need to first become conscious of what we think, and become mindful of the impact that our thoughts have on our perceptions and attitudes towards others.
My fervent hope is that we, as individuals and fellow members of our human community, will attempt to treat those we love and share our lives with as we would like to be treated.
How do you feel when someone says, “Good morning, have a nice day,” or “Hi, how are you?” or “What’s up?” when you pass on the street or in an aisle of a supermarket? What a difference it makes to present a smile, rather than a scowl, in our interactions with others. Remembering the words of the Dalai Lama, “we are equal and we are the same.”
I add my thought that we are just packaged with different skin colours, body shapes and ways of relating with one another.
My belief and experience is that if we treat others the way that we would like to be treated, life will be more free of problems and conflicts. We will feel safer, and become more spontaneously caring and compassionate. When we stop reliving our past upsets and conflicts and stop anticipating what might go wrong in the future, so we can truly be in the now of life, we become fully ourselves.
Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote,
When we are truly present, in the now, our natural state of being is to be compassionate, to feel empathy with another person or living being.
How freeing it is to know that simply by changing our thoughts, we can change how we feel and how we experience life and other people. Wishing you all love, peace and joy.
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