A matter of insignificance.
When do we first recognize our insignificance?.
Perhaps it starts with babyhood. Perhaps it starts with some sense of our dependence, possibly with the discovery that She doesn’t always come immediately when we cry. Perhaps it just comes with that sense of helplessness, when we’re suddenly hungry, when our ass is wet and sticky and feels nasty, when there’s some gripe in our belly and we have no way of knowing that it will ever come to an end. Or perhaps it comes when, having had that dependence so readily met, parents come to that point when they have to teach us that we are not the centre of the world that we have been up until that point.
It comes, nonetheless. Or I believe it does. And to that quiet, scarcely conscious awareness of how very small we are in the world is soon added the authority of all those around us who are bigger and stronger than we are. The irascible auntie, grandad or grandma who does not love us unconditionally, who perhaps gets angry and upset when we cry in their arms because they somehow feel that it diminishes them.
Then there come the other adults, even our siblings if we have them. Inflicted with us, inconvenienced by us, they do not have to love us unconditionally, and their conditioning has already begun, they have already encountered the world that tells them how small and insignificant they are.
And bigger than us, more powerful than us, they have the power to make us feel small, even when they may not intend to. They may only be neighbours, more likely child-minders or teachers, as likely brothers and sisters, older kids, but to them we are – most of the time – ‘just another kid’.
By this time each of them already knows their insignificance and they are only too willing to teach it to us because, in the very process, they can – they believe – reduce their own.
This is the trap, the Catch 22.
By this stage we’re already learning, as infants, that if ever we felt important, if ever we felt ourselves to be the centre of the world which was once only mummy and daddy’s world, that we’re not so important after all, that mummy and daddy will refuse us things when we have language to understand them, that they will sometimes listen to someone else before they will listen to us, and that – outside of mummy and daddy – being significant means possessing power.
Adults, even total strangers often, have it. They can attack us with their voices and their postures, using tones we may never have been accustomed to, volumes we may never have been accustomed to, looming over us and intimidating us in ways we have never been accustomed to, and they can do it because they have power.
We learn we have little power. In the process of learning it we play power games, pushing the boundaries to see how much power we have before the adults rein us in with their authority. And in teaching us that we cannot have the range of power we desire, in refusing us sweets and treats, the extra hour in the garden or the living room, the tv show that coincides with the football game, that power of theirs can be quite aggressive. Even if it is no more than a raised voice it may be no less powerful to us than a physical punch.
Self defence requires power. To defend ourselves against a known foe requires power. To defend ourselves against foes imagined – we think – requires power.
And it is power that everyone older than we are, everyone bigger than we are, uses – intentionally or not – to control us, making us aware of our relative powerlessness.
Growing up becomes, for many, the pursuit of power. We resent the power the teacher, the bigger child or someone else has over us and we want to grow up because – from our perspective and according to adults’ own fiction – adults have power. They do not tell you, in the growing up time, that once you become an adult others will have power over you, that the policeman, the social worker, the politician, the manager or foreman you work for, will have at times a terrible power over you.
It is as we grow up that we become aware of the manifold threads and avenues of power. We are hurt if mummy smacks us, if the big girl at school does the same, but we’re also hurt when somebody laughs at us or derides us. To be able to hurt someone is power.
The laughed at and derided slide yet that fraction more away from power. And as they lose power, as they are reminded of their relative powerlessness, so the act of laughing or deriding gives its agent a sense of sliding closer to the power that otherwise eludes them. I may have exactly the same as him or her, I may be exactly the same as him or her, but if I can deride him or her to an extent that causes them pain, however trivial, I am that fraction more powerful than they.
Day after day we learn that there are things beyond our power. We cannot make a particular teacher respond warmly to us, we cannot stop the bully who picks on us after school or steals our lunch money, we cannot defend ourselves against the spiteful boss, or the spiteful wife or husband. We cannot ensure that illness will not descend upon us or guarantee our future security, and we cannot protect ourselves from a death which – on the basis of evidence rather than belief – is final, complete, and totally erases us from the world and its very history.
The knowledge of our powerlessness and our insignificance, as measured in the very great scheme of things, is not comfortable for a human mind that perceives so much, even when it is not entirely sure what it perceives. Impotent – relatively – we seek ever greater power.
So I have nothing more than my neighbour has? I am no more powerful than my neighbour is? Then let me buy a house bigger than his, a car faster than his, a wife more ‘beautiful’ than his, take a holiday more expensive than his, and I receive a gift of superiority, a sense of power increased because I perceive his to be diminished.
And if I cannot attain more power in this way, if I am reminded daily of my impotence because he can actually afford better power symbols than I can myself, how else can I rise, how else can I empower myself?
I can despise him for his difference. I can elect to follow a religion or other belief system which institutionalises others as inferior to me. I can feel better than him, more significant than him and, ergo, more powerful than him, if I am a Christian and he a Jew, I white and he black, I straight and he gay.
Aware of my own insignificance I need no-one, much, to look up to, but I am in desperate need of others to look down upon in order to elevate myself. Here entereth almost every belief system in existence.
What I cannot do, as a rule, is use that one force which removes us from insigniificance, that one power which is unique to us but which is almost never used in a way that is empowering. I cannot love. And I cannot love because if ever I have been loved unconditionally it has only been short term and by a very, very few, and because even that very few have, under the power of institutions and authority-based philosophies, from time to time exercised arbitrary and unloving power over me.
My teachers teach me because it is a career, not because they love me, for even if they DO love me – and the very best teachers do – they cannot, dare not articulate it for fear of the judgement of others. The doctors and nurses who mend my broken bones do not do it because they love me. Again they would be looked at much askance if they suggested that such was their reason for doing what they do. We must strive, we’re told, not to become ‘emotionally involved’ (and what else, really, is love?) and we must be ‘professional’. An empowering word, that. A distancing word, that.
The greatest power on earth is love, but it is not that power that directs government policy, national or international relationships, the maintenance of public order or the teacher’s authority. We love power too much to love, pursue power too energetically to have energy left for love, because love is demanding, love requires dedication, attention and a willingness to be vulnerable.
It is easier to fight for power than it is to submit to love, and thus emerges the world we inhabit.