The Power Nobody Can Take From You – Unless You Let Them.

“A bird sitting in a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not on the branch, but on its own wings.” Denzel Washington. 

It is not possible to create perfect systems. We can simply aim for better. And given that our systems and institutions will inevitably fail us sometimes, it is unwise to place too much of our sense of self and security on those systems and institutions. This is why it is important to develop a sense of internal strength and resilience. And to do that, we have to work on ourselves, and develop the right relationship with the mind, our feelings (including woundedness), and the world around us. 

However, many ideologies and online communities today (spanning the entire political and social spectrum) perpetuate grievance and blame worldviews. They typically garner community support by identifying and projecting against enemies, mocking, shaming and condemning them. Unfortunately, this often includes mainstream institutions, media channels and leaders. It is very easy to get caught up in such  spaces, and to allow our minds to be colonised by them. 

I suggest establishing a healthy distance from them. 

If we fail to develop an inner locus of power, we are going to be pushed and pulled by the world, cast upon a sea of emotional turmoil, as that world inevitably changes across the span of our lives. We may even sink to a life of projection and rage at the world and it’s people, a fruitless journey which ends in entrenched hopelessness and powerlessness. 

We are easy prey for bad faith actors and communities once we lose our sense of inner strength. Many such people choose to engage in attempts at aggressive power and control over the system and other people. They may become destructive. 

We cannot always change the world. I live in China, and many things here are out of my control, while other situations are simply beyond my understanding. I am quite vulnerable in the sense that I enjoy few of the legal or human rights that people in western countries do. When I experience confusion, “oppression” or injustice, quite often there are no external means of rectifying the situation. There are few institutions or systems to support me, let alone “safe spaces” and counselling. 

Let me count the ways. I’ve been evicted from my own home (twice) because neighbours or the landlord didn’t like foreigners. I’ve been evicted from hotels, the management stating, “Foreigners aren’t allowed here” (and no refund). I’ve been cursed at in public, and also had my Chinese wife called a “whore” and “traitor” on public transport simply because she was with a foreigner. I’ve also been fired from a job here without notice or justification. There was no legal basis to challenge the decision. In the following institution I worked for, in an international English language programme, we had a very progressive boss for two years. Then he left and the new boss announced in his very first meeting that: “This is China, and in China the minority must serve the majority.” He said this in English, then abruptly changed to Chinese for the rest of the meeting. Thereafter, the institution’s default language became Chinese. Over the following two years I and other foreigners were all removed from management positions. Another employer publicly condemned me on the organisation’s web pages -not once, but twice – for questioning a system protocol, resulting in having half my annual bonus slashed and my yearly review of “excellent” retracted. And all that without ever speaking to me about the decision. My email asking for clarification from the administration was never answered.

Oh, and I’ve been physically assaulted in public. Just the once, though. 

I won’t mention the myriad “microaggressions” that I regularly experience in China. The best way to deal with microaggressions is to be micro-offended, and to just let them go. We are all human, and we all unintentionally do and say things that may be slightly rude or offensive to others. If no harm is intended, most of the time we can just move on.

To put this in perspective, it all occurred over a period of two decades, during which time 99.9+% of my interactions with China and its people have been positive or at least neutral. I have received so much in my time here, and that has far outweighed the negative side. I remain grateful (though admitedly less optimistic about my future here, than previously). Years ago I chose to let go of all grievances I held, and to focus on the present and my immediate experience. This opened a space for genuine engagement with Chinese people, and even with its often frustrating institutions and systems. People can sense it when you are open and present. And they can sense it when you are angry and resentful, projecting past grievances onto the people and situations you encounter. Resentment is its own punishment, and robs the soul of the nourishment of engaging with the world and its people, here and now. And we are all greatly in need of such sustenance during these troubled times, where we are regualarly being tested with disruption and uncertainty. 

Psychoanalyst Victor Frankyl knew it well. In his highly regarded book Man’s Search For Meaning, he described his time in a Nazi concentration camp, where he spent much of World War Two. All about him he saw what were possibly the worst injustices ever perpetrated by and on humanity. Many of his fellow Jewish prisoners gave up. Typically, those that did would simply refuse to get out of bed, and lie there in their own faeces and urine, till the prison guards came to take them away and shoot them. Frankyl’s own human dignity and power were stripped away to almost nothing. Almost. But what Frakyl realised is that there is one kind of power that nobody, not even the Nazis, could take away from him. And that was the power to choose the attitude he could take to his internment. The meaning of it all.

We all have the power to choose a healthy and empowered relationship with the world and its people. No matter where we are or what we are experiencing. And we can often choose gratitude over grievance. Don’t let anybody take that power away from you. Not even for a good cause.


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