The Radical Power of Pure Love
This seems a fitting day for me to be writing about powerlessness. It's my son Adam's 21st birthday. His best friends are here, joyously celebrating legal adulthood—except that none of them will ever quite be a legal adult. They were all born with serious birth defects. Each of their mothers took vitamins, ate right, had good prenatal care. We did everything in our power to have "perfect" babies. We found that our power didn't amount to much.
At the other end of the spectrum, my dog had surgery this week. The vet removed various tumors from his chubby old body, and he never really recovered. I spent the past few days sitting with his head on my lap, the only thing that seemed to make him comfortable. When a follow-up examination made it clear that Cookie had nothing in his future except suffering, I signed a form and put my arms around him as the vet added one more ingredient to his IV drip. Cookie set his sweet, soft head on my hand and died as he lived, with no fear and great love.
Birthdays and death days. Both remind us how little power we have. Both present us with infinite opportunities to either love or fear. To the extent that we choose love, the puniness of our material power is replaced by a power that comes not from us but through us. Judy and Linda accessed that power against the tide of social conditioning. Adam and his friends access it every day to live cheerfully with "disempowering" conditions. I felt it coursing through Cookie even as his body powered down, and I felt it in my own decision to let him go. Real power is usually unspectacular, a simple setting aside of fear that allows the free flow of love. But it changes everything.
Those who mistake violence for power are often surprised by this. Apartheid's architects didn't think twice about all the black women like Annie who were paid meager wages to "mind" white babies. They didn't realize that these women would do something revolutionary, choosing to see the infants of their oppressors not through the eyes of fear, as future enemies, but through the eyes of love, simply as babies. "For many white South Africans who were raised by black 'mothers,' there was no way on earth that apartheid could seem right to us," Judy told me. These women, and people like Judy, became heroes by insisting that love prevail in South Africa. Linda Hamilton became a hero by doing the same thing on an American sidewalk. And you can become a hero today, by choosing love over fear in any situation whatsoever.
Each of my clients eventually made the shift: In Mindy's case, empowerment took the form of staging an intervention for her daughter. Denise used her power to leave her hated job, even in today's scary economy. Paula checked into a hotel for three days of rest, then returned to her family with the determination that her own needs counted as much as anyone else's. Each of them felt the power of compassion flowing through them as they aligned themselves with love.
Power comes from actions like these, and the infinite small choices between love and fear. Today, pay close attention: Are you following the gripping energy of fear or the liberating energy of love? My own to-do list includes writing this column, calling clients, answering approximately 4,687,977 e-mails, and preparing a speech. Instead, I allowed myself to choose what my heart dictated. I baked a cake for five "handicapped" young people, and held on to a very old beagle while I let him go. It might not look like much from the outside, but I know power when I feel it.
Martha Beck is the author of six books; her most recent is Steering by Starlight (Rodale).
Find out what Oprah knows for sure about real power
From the September 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.