Many of us think that power exists out in the world, that some people have it, others don’t. According to who you ask, power comes from the barrel of a gun, from money, from political authority, from a title, from physical strength, from sitting atop a hierarchy of people. Yet the very people who have that power are often the most fearful of all, witness Stalin or Nixon. Power ceases to be the servant, it becomes the master. Yet power often emerges from something ephemeral, something inside an individual, something that can’t be taken away: the power of ideas, the power of hope, the power of love, the power of faith as well as the power of hate, and the power of revenge.
We all have more power than we think. Perversely, those that understand this best are terrorists. They can’t possibly hope to win on the battlefield. Their weapon, as their name suggests, is terror, an emotion, a state of mind that invokes powerlessness and resignation. They sow doubt and discord, and they can provoke overreach and overuse of power which can lead to psychological and moral victories. They only win when they can convince their opponent they’re powerless and it’s not worth fighting anymore.
That was dark, but it makes the point sharp and clear: power is in the mind. Here is an example of this use of power within for a more positive end, in my judgment. One of my favorite pictures came from the uprising against the Communist Chinese government after the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989. A single Chinese man, holding two shopping bags, stopped a column of tanks with nothing but his courage. One man, in a cotton shirt, against four armed and armored killing machines weighing several tons each, and it was a draw. How could this be possible? This was possible because this man believed he had the power to stop the tanks, and so he did. If he had believed he had no power at all, he would have hidden in a doorway and the tanks would have rumbled through unhindered. Instead, he found his power and made history. Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most important people of the century, not bad for a slight man with a big heart and balls of steel.
Does that mean that faith and courage will always carry the day? No. The tank commander could have simply shot him, and that would have been the end of it. But then again, perhaps the shooting of an unarmed man peacefully blocking tanks would have had far-reaching consequences? Executing a carpenter in Judea gave rise to the religion that would dominate Rome three centuries later, and all of Europe for two millennia. Impossible to predict, and there are no guarantees.
I like to think that the best metaphor for power is poker. The winning hand is not always the objectively “best” hand. A good player knows how to maximize what he’s got, and can often defeat an opponent who appears to have better cards, through bluffing, bravado and good timing, in short, by changing his opponent’s belief in the probability of victory and the consequences of defeat.
So, when you hear “you can’t fight city hall,” or “that’s just the way it is,” consider that those statements, should you choose to accept them, contain the seeds of your certain defeat, at your own hands! As the Great Gretzky said, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” What did this man with a shopping believe such that he could stop tanks and make history? He believed that he had power, and believing so made him right.
—Photo Tony Fischer Photography/Flickr