Power. One fundamental part of the human condition is that we all crave more power than we already have.
Whether you’re a retail worker frustrated by your erratic work schedule, or a billionaire CEO for whom no amount of excess can ever be enough, or even a monk seeking enough discipline to gain a greater level of self control, we all seek to “level up” in some way or another when it comes to personal power, (regardless of how we choose to define it). Unfortunately , it is the nature of the Universe to render us powerless.
Hurricanes. Chronic illness. Fires. The unexpected can take us down at any moment. Even Napoleon was legendarily defeated because his Waterloo hemorrhoids made riding difficult for him, and he couldn’t survey the battlefield from horseback.
There is so much in life that we have zero control over. Even if we luck out through most of our journey - even if we build empires in our names - at the end of it all, every last one of us is destined to die - an outcome that no amount of wealth, self-control, political influence, or luck can prevent. Quite frankly, it is terrifying. People, naturally, seek power wherever they can get it - the illusion of control. The drive to master our environments is what makes us human - it’s what drove us to evolve, and develop civilizations. It’s what teaches us the discipline and the strength to be civilized to one another; it’s also what keeps us ambitious, and cutthroat, and prevents us from acting civil toward one another. It’s in our DNA.
Some people channel this force toward creation (arts, crafts, writing, music, or helping others). Others turn to bullying to feel a sense of empowerment. Others wrestle with bottled up rage for which they have no outlet at all, and hold it in until they snap.
People, when they feel particularly powerless, frustrated, and enraged, lash out. It’s a desperate move, but we all do it to some extent or another, especially when under pressure. Sometimes it results in minor outbursts at friends who don’t deserve it, or aggressive behavior in traffic jams. Sometimes it ends in massacres, or other horrific tragedies.
I think one of the reasons so many people go off the deep end, and lash out big time is because anger and hatred feels like power - even if it’s just the power to make another person feel bad, or the power to destroy a life. If you feel that the world has been unkind to you, then it feels like justice to be unkind right back – to leave a scar on the face of humanity.
The sad truth, however, is that, when we do that, we are not even exercising power over our own wills.
Blind rage is a form of slavery, and the slave-driver is our own worst natures. I have been going through some rough times lately, (the details of which are, of course, private), and I found myself thinking, in the depths of my own sense of powerlessness: What is power anyway?
We typically think of it in terms of armies, and influence, or on a smaller scale, the simple ability to manipulate one another into getting what we want. But at the end of the day, in an existential sense, power is about feeling like we matter - like we are in control - that our lives amount to something – an accomplishment that rises above the sense of helplessness that eats at us all from time to time.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. What has any of this to do with pony? I’m getting to that. My own struggles for control came to a head recently. I work in a stodgy historical library. We cater mostly to academics and serious researchers. Last week, however, because of a community event going on, we had a lot of foot traffic coming through, and we were encouraged to be festive. When I left the house that day, I was feeling particularly down, and not terribly festive. I didn’t want to go to work at all, and I certainly didn’t want to smile or be cheerful. At the last minute, however, just before I walked out the door, I grabbed a goofy pink unicorn hat that my wife had bought me as a joke. I’m not sure what possessed me to do it, but I’m glad that I did.
I put it when I got to work. I was a little bit shy about it at first, but after a chuckle from my boss, and a thumbs up, I felt a little less worried. Throughout the day, people from the community poured in, and the goofy unicorn hat got smiles - a lot of smiles. Sweet old ladies laughed, and made absurdist conversation with me. Children’s eyes lit up when they saw me. "It’s a uuuu-ni-coo orn!“ So many of them said in the same pitch and tone without ever having conspired with one another. One guy came up to me and said, "I believe in you.” He was, of course, making a joke about the existence of unicorns, but it was in that moment that I realized something very important - I believed in myself too.
It was something so simple - so stupid - but it changed my entire perspective. I have always admired Pinkie Pie’s philosophy as expressed in the song, “Smile,” but when I spent an entire day interacting with dozens of people, all smiling directly at me - directly because of me - I understood it on a whole other level. Smiles, when they are genuine, have power. When you make a conscious decision to spread a little sunshine, you are taking control.
A lot of people who made failed suicide attempts later went on to say that they wouldn’t have gone through with it - wouldn’t have tried at all - if just one person that day at smiled at them, or said a kind word.
Life is hard. The world is cruel. When people get smacked down, they want to lash out because of their own anger and frustration, and feelings of powerlessness. They lash out because rage feels like power.
It is not.
Real power is rising above. Real power is taking those feelings and turning them into kindness - turning them into smiles. Sometimes real power is just the simple act of putting on a stupid hat.
I am reminded of something Weird Al Yankovic did. He is not only the voice of Cheese Sandwich, but just about the closest thing to a real life Pinkie Pie that the planet Earth is ever going to have.
Both his parents died tragically and senselessly of carbon monoxide poisoning. When he learned of the news, his manager offered to cancel the show that was scheduled for that evening. He did not. This is what he had to say as to why, “I’ve heard from so many people over the years that my music has cheered them up in times of tragedy… well, I thought maybe my music would help me too.”