In a talk at the Harvard Kennedy School, Ta-Nehisi Coates noted how during the French revolution, poor aristocrats were vehement, more than anyone else, about protecting the borders between them and peasants because “the aristocracy was all they had.” In other words, they needed to uphold a distinction of superiority between themselves and peasants. Ta-Nehisi attributed this to the human proclivity to having to be on top, and in our world, that necessitates others being on the bottom.
Why is that the case? Why do most people define being on top as being on top of others? Why can’t being on top be defined as being our best selves rather than being better than others?
It’s imperative we take a deep look at how we define power because that’s what we’re really talking about here. We’ve defined power in relation to others. Being powerful means having power over others, being dominant, superior. When we define power in this way, power becomes rooted in scarcity: there’s no room for all of us to be great; there are only winners and losers; kill or be killed; life is a zero-sum game. Hence, in order for us to be on top, we must be on top of others.
This goes against the universal truth highlighted in the previous post: we are one. Because we are one, we are all worthy (of love and belonging), and are all endowed with power, no more or less than others. So why do we subscribe to this belief about power that’s rooted in scarcity, an untruth?
Understanding what happens when we believe we’re unworthy, we can see why we define power and being powerful the way most of us do. We can also see how power is tied to, if not defined by worthiness.
When we get caught up, as Tara Brach so aptly puts it, in the trance of unworthiness, we believe there’s something inherently wrong with us, and thus, unworthy of the human need of love and belonging. This perception of ourselves renders us powerless and has us experiencing ourselves as powerless. We become derailed from the truth of who we are—we are one—and look outside ourselves for affirmations of worthiness, for power.
In the trance of unworthiness, power and worthiness are attained through external sources like money, status, looks, physical strength, and other sources that are our minds can comprehend and compute. When we are derailed from the truth of we are one, we compare and compete over these external sources with others. It’s why we view having more of these external sources than others as means to which we can gain power and become powerful. It’s also why we view them as means to prove our worthiness.
Because so many of us are derailed and have lost sight of the truth, we’ve created a world that affirms this. Those who have more of those external sources appear to bask in the human need of love and belonging – they are adored and embraced because they’ve become figures of power through the attainment of external sources. They, in turn, believe their worthiness is validated.
But seeking external sources to gain love and belonging is a hollow, fragile, untruthful and dysfunctional endeavor. Truth is, the fact that we are born and live in this world is a testament to our worthiness. Inherent in our birth and life is purpose for we wouldn’t be here for no reason – that’s not how Life works (unless you believe life is random). It is misleading and futile to have to prove something that already exists, and to believe our worthiness, our power, is contingent on sources that can change or will change at any given time.
Furthermore, as long as we live in a society that’s rooted in scarcity, there will always be individuals that have more or appear to have more of those external sources than us. Those individuals will appear to get more love and acceptance, which will make them appear not just powerful and worthy, but more powerful and worthy than us. How we compare to others ends up dictating our worthiness, our power. Others become an ever-present threat when we view power through this lens.
When we are derailed by this illusion and lose sight of the truth of we are one, we will do whatever it takes to stay on top, make sure there’s a bottom and relegate others to that bottom, all to feel a false sense of power and worthiness. We fixate on othering and place judgment as we other in the form of a superiority/inferiority complex. This is what sustains a world rooted in scarcity and a hierarchical order of life. This is how we breed and sustain racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and various forms of oppression and disharmony. It’s as if almost all, if not all, the ills in our world is rooted in unworthiness.
Authentic power is not one that needs comparison, competition, superiority or dominance. We don’t need to go outside of ourselves to find it or get it. In fact, the more we remember and own the truth, the more we tap into the well of real power that’s already within.