I had an interesting dream a few nights ago. I dreamt I was back in high school. Also, my mother owned a time machine.
I remember it was a kind of Harry-Potter-esque time control device; a little hourglass you could turn to rewind time a certain amount. I asked to borrow it from her so I could drive to some play I missed. After enough cajoling she eventually caved in and lent the hourglass to me, but she seemed very worried and near-tears about doing so. When I asked her why she was so upset, she explained: the hourglass couldn’t rewind during or past its last rewind. if I died or something happened to me while I was back in time, she wouldn’t be able to use the hourglass to undo it.
This is where the dream gets kind of interesting to me. The drive to the theater was incredibly stressful. Every intersection felt super dangerous, going more than a couple miles an hour was a terrifying experience, and I was constantly hounded with thoughts that a play wasn’t worth this, and I should go back home where I was safe. Driving, of course, had always been dangerous - but all of a sudden it was dangerous because of something I was doing. The hourglass, left unused, could’ve saved my life if I was in a car accident. I discovered that I had power over my own life and death, and I was consciously giving it up for what? To watch a play? Was it worth it? And furthermore, had my mother experienced the same feelings from owning the time machine? How many times had she gone without using it, specifically so she could still turn back time if something happened to me?
Toward the end of the dream I ended up accidentally breaking the hourglass. In addition to feeling guilt over doing so, I admit there was a certain sensation of relief that I no longer had to deal with the responsibility it entailed. I could just do the things I wanted without the looming guilt that I had misused my power in a way that would cause harm later.
It was a weird dream.
We very often talk about power, or how people should behave with power, how everyone with power becomes corrupted. What we don’t talk about are the negative feelings that holding power can elicit in someone. When you recognize you have power over something, it doesn’t just tell you that you determine the outcome - it tells you that a negative outcome will be because of what you did.
We recognize this most readily in leaders. A person leading a project, for example, is going to drive a lot of the creative decisions as well as choices about who they are working with and how these people are organized. By extension, they are also going to be at blame if the project fails - every mistake was something that they had the power to prevent, and didn’t. It can be a very stressful activity, especially in a culture that is quick to label people as objectively “good” or “bad” based on their mistakes - but I would argue the attitude that this leads to is even more harmful.
We, as a culture, fetishize helplessness. The same way a transformation fetishist might draw a bizarre image sequence in which a panicked person yells “what is happening?” as they transform into a dog, we continually play out these contrived scenarios in which we are emphasized as being powerless in a chaotic world. If people continually disagree with us, we will sigh it off with the phrase “people are stupid”, elevating stupidity to some otherworldly force that would be hopeless to fight. If someone manages to successfully spread their views to these “stupid people” we couldn’t affect, that person is “manipulative” - they are delivering their message using tactics that someone of our moral standing simply could not touch. And even when the world around us has major problems, we are quick to dismiss it as being held in place by “politics”, some ethereal force that can only be manipulated by conservative white men over 50 and it is hopeless for us to do anything more than talk about it.
Rather than seeing ourselves as bad speakers, we see the world around us as being bad listeners. We go to great lengths to convince ourselves that our actions don’t have power - they are ineffective and the outcomes solely dependent on others. The idea that we could have done things better terrifies us, so we seek solace in the lie that the result was out of our control. One vote wouldn’t’ve made a difference. Leaving sooner still wouldn’t’ve got me there. We are so afraid of making mistakes that we would rather view ourselves as powerless victims of circumstance.
This phenomenon is also visible in art, and part of what got me thinking about it was a discussion I had the other night with a friend. I’m pretty open about the fact that I don’t view art as being something “magical”; to me, it’s just another form of communication that can be effective or ineffective for whatever its intended purpose is. Flowery language like saying “it comes from the heart” or “they put their soul into it” conceals the more concrete mechanics by which we determine something’s quality, pushing this idea that art is fundamentally chaotic - that there are immeasurable elements to its quality that cannot be understood or emulated.
It’s easy for someone to point to an artist like Jackson Pollock and say “the fact people think this is good proves art is beyond understanding”, but doing so undermines a lot of things Pollock’s paintings did very well on an aesthetic level, as well as the entire historical context in which he created his art and got notoriety through its nonconformism. It would be very difficult for anyone reading this to make a painting that carried the same visual appeal as Pollock’s work, and impossible to make one that gained attention by delivering the same message.
Someone trying to do art professionally does not have the luxury of reveling in powerlessness. An artist truly working “from the heart” and not concerning themselves with the aesthetic quality of their work would be leaving their success up to chance - an occupation no more viable than being a professional scratch-off player. Professional artists know that there are rules and theories they have to abide by and apply in order to make it in a competitive field. They have to assess what works and doesn’t work, and adjust their approaches according to what they find.
It’s easy to label this behavior as “cold and mercenary” but, well, it’s not. The same underlying theories will determine a piece’s reception whether or not you acknowledge them, and once you know about them you don’t have a choice in whether or not to think about them. An experienced artist can’t just say “I will put the character in a random place in this image” - they know that one location will lead to well-received composition abiding by the Rule of Thirds whereas another place might be unbalanced or boring. Once you recognize the effects your choices will have, you can’t just ignore them. You know you have power, and that outcomes will pivot on the decisions you make.
Even beyond artists hurting their own success, ignoring power is something that can actively cause harm to others. If anyone has been following me a real long time, you probably remember a contentious essay I wrote a few months back called Weaponizing Fear, about a situation that almost drove the author of Gunnerkrigg Court to suicide. I got a lot of very heated criticism for that, particularly my opening statement that Tumblr “almost killed a guy”. To quote one person, I “accused hundreds of people of almost murdering someone”.
My first thought on that, of course, is “it could’ve also been an accusation of almost manslaughtering someone”. My second thought: is such an accusation actually false? The essay described a series of conscious actions that, by all accounts, almost led to someone’s death. It would have been death at his own hands, sure, but still the attacks and a lack of understanding from other people that pushed him to do it. Why do we downplay that?
You see this a disturbing amount with suicide in general. If someone does it, they were sick. They needed help. It’s all them. All too often, the people and circumstances around them - some of which may have been a direct antagonist - are not held at fault. We treat ourselves and others as utterly powerless, telling ourselves that suicide is just a thing that happens and there is nothing we could’ve done about it. We don’t understand that a well-placed kind word or a pre-reblog source-check could’ve saved someone’s life, because doing so would mean acknolwedging that we didn’t do that. And by refusing to acknowledge that we had that power and could’ve made all the difference, we continue to not make a difference the second time, the third time, the fourth time, or the ten thousandth time this comes up. How many lives are lost because someone won’t see that they have power? Won’t acknowledge that, yes, someone died and you could’ve stopped it?
Power is not evil. Power means you will make mistakes; projects will fail because of you, people will die because of you, losses will be incurred because of you, and it will be your fault. We are quick to criticize people in power, accuse them of misusing their power by doing the wrong thing or not doing enough, but we don’t acknowledge that we’re doing the same thing by ignoring the power we have. Consequences occur because we did not act as well as we could’ve, or didn’t acknowledge the strength our words and actions carried. The sooner we recognize that - the sooner that we own up to that power and learn to wield it - the sooner can can stop acting like victims of consequence and actually make a difference.
You are not helpless. The world is not outside your control. Yeah, it’s complex. And no, believing in yourself isn’t enough. But you can learn, you can experiment with what does and doesn’t work, and you can eventually achieve the power necessary to make the changes you desire. And if someone tells you that you can’t - that there are insurmountable walls or that it’s not worth even trying - then tell them to go fuck themselves, because helplessness fetishists like them are part of the problem.
You can be kind to people while being ruthless to obstacles. You can be effective in your delivery while being moral in your message. You never have to sacrifice your values to get power. You just need to be able to live with mistakes.
If I could go back to my dream, I would not use the hourglass to go to the play. The fictitious representation of my mother was right: it was something better off saved for emergencies, or times it would make a big difference.
It’s scary to think about, having to weigh things you want to do against the risks they carry, but it’s a natural consequence of having power over a situation, and something we have to do every day. As long as you are capable of having an impact, it’s up to you to make it the best one possible.