Why Losing Your Influence Is, Strangely, A Hidden Good Thing
When I was a kid, there was one great figure who shaped me.
His name, of course, was Spider-Man.
Spider-Man made me want to be influential. Spider-Man made me want to help people. But Spider-Man became part of my problem.
(Notice the hyphen in “Spider-Man”. The hyphen is important. Spider-Man isn’t one word, or two separate words. The hyphen reveals he is fully spider, and fully man.)
Spider-Man was my favourite hero because he was the most like me: awkward, overconfident at all the wrong times, and thrown into a world much bigger than he was. Spider-Man is the embodiment of adolescence. Pick up one of his early comics, and replace his struggles handling his “radioactive powers” with the words “puberty hormones”, and you have the perfect allegory for becoming a teenager.
The one lesson–the central creed–of every Spider-Man story is this:
"With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility."
They capitalize the beginning of every word so you’d know how important this line is. It’s the last thing Uncle Ben teaches his nephew Peter before he dies. Uncle Ben dies because Peter isn’t using his spider-powers to help people. Peter lives with the guilt and responsibility for his Uncle’s death, so he decides to use his influence to help whomever he can and as much as he is able.
This lesson took root in me. While I can’t climb walls or swing from webs, I have a pretty good grasp on my own gifts and talents. From the very beginning–for as far as my own influence could reach–I wanted to use these gifts to help other people. Sure, I couldn’t fix someone’s tax crisis or repair their car. But I could use my words, and my voice, to encourage and inspire.
And I could influence the way other people think.
But it evolved from there. I didn’t just want to look after what had been entrusted to me–I wanted to be the hero. I could help them! And I knew I was right when they were wrong! If someone was discouraged, I could offer hope. If they were misguided, and creating problems in their lives, I could show them the folly of their ways! If only I had a bigger megaphone. If only more people would listen!
I suddenly needed more influence over others.
Isn’t this always the reason why we want more power and authority?
Nobody starts out looking for control over others. It happens gradually. When “hinting” and “suggesting” stop working, you move onto “demanding” and “requiring”. When the people you care about get caught up in bad choices, it’s sometimes all too easy to step in and take over for them–even if they become co-dependant on you. When you know what the right answer is, and when you see someone floundering in a bad decision, isn’t it the right call to step in and force them to follow you?
I mean, it’s for their own good–right?
This, of course, doesn’t just stop with individuals. It’s most clearly seen in groups looking for social and political power. We can see it more clearly because–at least sometimes–we have a sneaking suspicion that our crowd might just be wrong.
But we join in the protests and demand more influence anyway. It’s powerful–it’s spiritual!–to fight for more say.
We have rights. We are right. Whether they like it or not, we’re going to help others see. We’re going to fix their problems. We’re going to drag them, kicking and screaming, into a better world!
We want great power. We promise we’ll handle the great responsibility.
Here’s the problem: this never works.
Power, in and of itself, doesn’t corrupt us. But the quest for power always does.
The desire for influence, as a quest for power, always run into a head-on collision with human freedom. Eventually, we have to face a painful question.
Do I surrender and consent, or do I try to control?
Think about the addicts you’ve tried to yell out of their substance abuses. Think about the religious figures you know who are trying to “take back their city”. Think about the politicians who promise certain groups they won’t be bullied or mocked anymore. Think about military leaders who claim there is no other choice than to “hunt down threats”.
Our attempts to make the world right, by taking control of as much as we can and forcing our agenda on others, is destructive in a secret way. We stitch up the wound without suturing the puncture, and we pretend like the internal bleeding will go away on its own.
This was why my image of Spider-Man had become a problem! This was why my misreading of Spider-Man had me so confused. You see, Spider-Man doesn't want to be stronger. Spider-Man resents his powers! I used to think this was a bad thing. A character flaw. Come on, Spidey! You're the good guy. You should want to be even stronger than you are! Why are you so cautious?
For every terrorist we kill, we create two more who seek to avenge the loss of their loved one. For every law we pass, a stronger opposing bill is submitted. Every critic we silence starts a movement against us, and every addict we coerce simply surpasses the root causes of their dysfunction.
What can we do instead?
I refuse to be fatalistic about this–there has to be a better way. It’s clearly hiding in plain sight, but we have to have eyes to see it.
Why don’t we just embrace our loss of influence?
I’m not saying influence or power are bad in and of themselves. It’s not right to abdicate the role we do have in the lives of others.
I’m just saying we should celebrate when other people move us to the margins.
As much as we can, we help people. And with the authority and influence we’ve been given, we do what is right–all the while refusing to coerce or control them. Because we’re no longer playing the “Hungry for Power Games”, people can trust us again.
Because we’re willing to move outside the angry crowd, jostling for position. We’re willing to join the voiceless, and the powerless, and speak for them instead of ourselves. We demonstrate we’re trustworthy as we let other people push us away! We don’t try to manipulate them. We refuse to complain. We hold to our convictions without demanding anyone else submit to them.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility. I believe this is true.
But most of all, the first responsibility of power is to sacrifice the desire to control.
Only then can we say that we’re loving and serving people without causing them further pain.
Let’s lay down our agendas and enjoy our spot on the sidelines. It’s worth it just to earn their trust again.