Today’s extract from Losing the Fig Leaf looks at one of the six Ps – the tree of Power. We’ll stay with this chapter for the rest of the week. To check out the other ‘trees’, click here.
The first tree: Power
But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’
At the time of writing, my stepson and his fiancée are expecting a baby in about a month’s time – a little girl. I know without a doubt that she will be welcomed into a very loving home, and she will have parents (not to mention grandparents!) who will love her to pieces! I also know, however, that that little girl will rule the roost, at least for a while, and her every cry, her every need, her every want, will be catered for. No matter what time of the day or night, no matter how exhausted Mum and Dad might be, she will cry, and they will answer the summons.
Babies are helpless creatures, unable to do very much at all for themselves, yet they exert tremendous power. And it isn’t only when they cry. Many people, when they see a newborn baby, will become all mushy inside – me included! Babies and little children appeal to something deep inside us – a caring, nurturing, protective instinct. The first time they smile, the first time they laugh, the first time they crawl, or stand up, or walk, or when their first tooth comes through, or when they say their first word – all these occasions are received with much joy, and everyone must be told! It’s compulsory!
As babies grow and become toddlers and older children, they need to learn that it isn’t right for them to hold all the power, and much of the power they are able to exert when they are babies will gradually be taken away from them. They will learn that their every whim will not be met with a positive response, and sometimes the answer to their request will be ‘No’ or ‘Wait’. They will begin to understand the difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’: their needs, of course, must be attended to, but their wants might not always be. Indeed, what they want might not be good for them. (I’m sure every child would want to eat the whole bag of sweets all at once – and perhaps some adults too!) They have to learn to live by the rules, for their own benefit, for the benefit of the rest of the family and for the good of wider society. Yet they will always have an element of power, and this is only right.
My children are growing up fast – they are now 18, 16 and 12. They have learned (even if they have to be reminded at times!) the rules of the household, and they respect them. They know that there is a certain hierarchy in the house, and that the rules are there not because we want to spoil their fun, but because they make for a household that is harmonious and that runs smoothly. They also know that certain rules are for their protection and well-being. Yet there is room for negotiation, and that is a good thing. As parents, my husband and I realise that we are not infallible, and we don’t rule the roost with an iron rod, daring anyone to challenge decisions we have made or things we have spoken. We welcome calm and reasoned discussion if there is a difference of opinion. We have even been known to change our minds on occasion! Our children are able to influence the way things happen in the home – they have power to change and affect things. It is important for everyone – including children – to feel that they have a voice, that their opinion is welcomed and respected. Denying someone this voice can do a lot of damage to their self-esteem and confidence. As we observed earlier, touch, affection and love are critical to a child’s personal development.
Power is something we all have, to a greater or lesser extent, within our spheres of influence, whether it be our homes and families, our friendship groups, our workplace, our church, or another group we are a part of. This is healthy and natural.
Some people within certain groups naturally have more ‘power’ than others. As parents, my husband and I have more power within the family unit. The manager of a department in the workplace will have more power than those who report to him or her. A school teacher has more power within the classroom than the pupils, but less power than the head teacher. Within a friendship group there might be a natural leader, one who is looked up to because they are considered to make wise decisions, for example. Depending on the type of church we go to, some of the leadership might be considered to have more power than the rest of the members or regular attenders; other churches advocate ‘every person ministry’, where decisions are made by the body as a whole.
Power becomes a problem when it becomes an end in itself, or when we use it for our own benefit rather than for the benefit of others. We can use our power to exert authority and to manipulate situations to our own ends. We all do it, whether we are aware of it or not. From the small child who flutters her eyelashes and smiles sweetly at her daddy because she knows he will give in to her demands, to the departmental manager who throws his weight around because he wants things done a certain way, with no regard for whether or not it is the best thing for the rest of the team or for the organisation as a whole, we can all ‘do’ something to get our own way.
When it is used in this way, power becomes a hiding place – when we do something to influence a situation in order to achieve a particular result, or for our own ends. We might throw our weight around in order to exert control over a person or a situation because we feel we would be unable to cope with a different outcome, or perhaps for entirely selfish reasons. Feelings of insecurity mean we might try to manipulate a situation to make it feel more comfortable rather than having to face our insecurities and fears. We use the authority we have in a situation or a relationship to influence the outcome, or the other person’s behaviour, rather than seeking to develop and deepen relationships so that we can work together to find solutions and to grow together.
We hide behind our power and influence because we fear the intimacy of relationships, or because we fear we might lose control of the way things are done. We think our way is best and feel threatened if that is questioned. But by working together, by admitting that we don’t have all the answers and we don’t always know best, we might surprise ourselves. The solutions we find together are often so much better than what we are able to come up with on our own.
When my eldest son was about 14, he wanted to go out on Tuesday evenings to Soul Survivor cell group meetings. (Soul Survivor is a church in Watford with a strong youth contingent, led by Mike Pilavachi.) My immediate reaction was no, he would be out too late and he would be coming home on his own in the dark, and that worried me too much. I could see by the look on his face that he was disappointed, but he accepted and respected my decision.
As I thought about this and chatted it through with my husband, I began to realise that the reason I had said no was because of my own fears and insecurities. I was worried that something might happen to him as he travelled on public transport late in the evenings. I realised that I was using the power I had within the relationship to keep things the way they were, because I felt comfortable with that. I wanted to wrap my son up in cotton wool and keep him safe. I began to think about some of the other things a 14-year-old boy might want to be doing with his evenings, and here I was trying to stop my son going to a church event and drawing closer to God!
Once I realised that I was hiding behind this power and using it for my own agenda, I changed my mind and told my son he could go to the meetings. He was very happy, and he has always respected my wishes that he let me know if he is going to be late home. He is now 18 and working as a sound and lighting technician at live events, so I won’t even mention the times he gets home on occasions! Yes, I worry about him when he is out until silly o’clock in the morning – I wouldn’t be normal if I didn’t – but I entrust him to God, go to bed and do my best to go to sleep! I have to realise that, in order for him to flourish and grow as an independent human being, I need to let go of the control and allow him to make his own decisions and his own way in the world. Of course, I will always be here for him when he needs me – that goes without saying – but by exerting too much control, I would be preventing him from reaching his potential and becoming the person he has been created to be.
Losing the Fig Leaf by Nicki Copeland will be published by Instant Apostle on Thursday 1st October 2015 and is available from Christian retailers and online sellers. Pre-order from Amazon in print or on Kindle here.