Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Power and Goodness

First of all, thank you to those of you who have taken the time to post comments to this blog. It is very much appreciated. Wordsmythe, I'm looking at your very thoughtful and practical suggestions to see where and how they might best be used. The Provocation Circles are usually informal and held on the yard so some of your suggestions may be more suited to the regular meetings. At any rate, I thank you.

In other news, I've been thinking lately about the relationship between power and goodness and it brought me around to the old adage that "power corrupts." I believe it's our job to question answers more than to answer questions so I asked myself, "Is this true or is it just another cuckoo's egg laid in our nest by repetition?"

My first thought was that it takes power to do anything at all, so if power corrupts then everyone who does anything is corrupt. I don't find this to be true. We use power all the time to help people and make the world a better place. I don't see any corruption in that. Even people with a lot of power like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Dalai Lama seem to have somehow avoided the corruption of power.

It's true that we can name hundreds of others who acquired power and used it in corrupt ways. But it seems to me that the corrupting influence of power is much more related to an imbalance between wisdom and power than it is an inherent attribute of power. In other words, power doesn't corrupt. Power without wisdom corrupts.

Wisdom is moral sense or, in Socrates' definition of education, the ability to do good. If power were an engine under the hood of a fast car, wisdom would be the driving skill of whoever's behind the wheel. Give someone with limited driving skills a Formula One race car, and they will probably hurt themselves and others. But it wasn't horsepower that caused this result. It was an imbalance between horsepower and driving skill.

M.L.K., Jr., said, "Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose." When our ability to achieve purpose outstrips our ability to discern good purpose from bad, one of two things has to happen to keep us from hurting ourselves. Either our ability to achieve purpose (our power) must be decreased, or our ability to discern good purpose from bad (our wisdom) must be increased.

In our time we don't often have the option of decreasing our power because things like the power of technology, the power of knowledge, the power of social wealth, and the power of information can't easily be untangled, avoided or given back once we have them. Our only choice to stay in balance is to increase our wisdom. Yet too often as we gain power we quit tending our wisdom. We stop asking questions about how we're using power and how we should be using it. We stop asking what life's about and what purpose we ought to be serving here.

What if every time we used power of any kind we paused and simply looked at the balance between our wisdom and our power? Are we wise enough to measure up to the power we've been given to wield daily? Even here in prison I find myself possessing a level of power that demands constant attention. There are so many ways to cause harm unconsciously. Some of this, of course, is inevitable, but when I do cause harm (such as eating animals) I want to at least be aware of it and pause for a moment to acknowledge it.

If I don't make an effort to maintain this awareness I can fall into the habit of thinking that what I do in life doesn't really have much effect — that I don't have enough power to help or harm. This is a bad mistake. I've been given the power to affect many things. This is a trust and I try to remember this as I balance the power I have with what wisdom I can muster.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Hot Sauce and Compliments

The other day, while searching without much hope for something to watch on TV, I came across a program on Nat Geo called Brain Games. I've seen it before and know it's sort of a Readers Digest version of psychology fun facts. This particular one was on compassion, so I stopped to see what they were talking about.

They were doing an experiment to test people's default attitude toward compassion. They did this by putting people in front of a one-way mirror, looking at someone who couldn't see them. They were then told to give this stranger a dose of hot sauce in a bowl of chili. Their choices were "Mild," "Medium Hot" and "Death."

The majority of people put a small dose of "Mild" into the stranger's chili, thus their default position was to lean toward compassion.

Next the researchers brought in a group of people and had a stranger bump them in the lobby then be extremely rude to them. When they got into the room, sitting in front of the three bottles of hot sauce, the light came on and there behind the glass was the rude stranger. The majority of subjects this time reached for "Death" and (often after asking, "You're sure they can't see me?") administered a healthy dose.

Nothing new here. People who are mistreated have at least an initial impulse to get even.

The surprise came later when they brought in the next group of test subjects. They put them through the same insults and rude behavior from the stranger in the lobby. But when this group came in to the chili room, the researcher said something like, "You have a beautiful smile," or "I really like that shirt." In other words, they were nice to the subjects. And guess what? The subjects, given the chance to be mean to someone who was just mean to them, overwhelmingly chose to be nice instead. That compliment from the researcher tilted their hand back toward the "Mild" bottle, and toward compassion.

Meanness begets meanness and hurt people hurt people. Yet active compassion has the power to break this meanness cycle, even when it comes from a stranger outside the cycle.

So tell people they look lovely today or that they're doing a good job or you appreciate their humor and kindness. The world has too much in the way of vengeful attitudes, of people who feel that hurting others is justified by the way they themselves have been treated. If all it takes is a little act of compassion to flip that to an attitude of kindness, it's a small price to pay.

Have I told you lately that your kindness and wisdom are invaluable to what I do and who I am?

Monday, July 14, 2014


Good news: Ethics and Stewardship meetings started this Sunday and will meet twice weekly with about twenty guys in each meeting for a total of forty in all.

Something new I'm trying — based on the passage in Hebrews 10:24, "Provoke one another to love and good works" — is Provocation and Accountability Circles (PACs) of two to five guys who will meet outside of weekly meetings to provoke each other to practice wholism and hold each other accountable to their true selves.

This is such a simple thing but very powerful. Do you have people you trust to provoke you and hold you accountable? We all should.

I remember standing in line once up north when a young guy came up and asked an older guy if he could cut the line. The two were obviously affiliated and the older guy told the younger, "We don't really do that." The guy took it well and I began to imagine if we all did this with our closest friends and family. Or if we specifically asked certain people to meet with us once a week so we can provoke, inspire, prod, and call one another to live wholistically and ethically.

I stress to the men here to pick people they trust and to consider it a trust to be asked to be part of a circle. It can easily become a criticizing session if people are immature about it. That's not what it's meant to be. It's more about having people remind us of, and help us develop, our ethical intelligence and put it in action.

I will encourage the groups to use the little cards I created that say: "WHOLENESS: Imagine It, Seek It, Speak It, and Pass It On."

Each of these is a real activity, not just clever words. What does it mean to imagine wholeness? To seek it? To speak it? To pass it on?

You have just been provoked.