What Power Requires
A breakdown of the power process
I came across a quote recently that stopped me in my tracks.
“Power requires neither permission nor forgiveness.”
It’s from Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.
I’m a sucker for a good “neither/nor” statement and it doesn’t hurt that it was paired with a rather NSFW Instagram post by a woman who makes the kind of racy, intellectual posts I’m partial to.
It first occurred to me to be a comment on raw, intrinsic power, an unapologetic claim of one’s place in the world. It was a reminder I didn’t know I needed. It surprised me, even in the couple weeks since the quote appeared in my life, how often I caught myself putting energy into getting people’s approval and sign off for things that frankly did not call for it. Apologizing for having my own legitimate feelings. Not only does power not require permission nor forgiveness, it can get lost completely as we prioritize these things instead of maximizing the impact we are seeking to make in the first place.
We just give it away.
This meaning alone has made the quote a bit of an anthem for me over the past couple weeks. But gradually, unprovoked, it revealed a profound and somehow gentler interpretation. In a world where we only have authority over our own choices and mindset, acquiring permission or forgiveness are two things we actually cannot control.
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be accountable to others and only do what we feel like doing. But power does not require the permission of others. If we seek it, we ought to be clear why we’re doing it and make sure it’s not a form of hiding or procrastination. And it doesn’t mean we can’t own up to missteps or hurtful things we’ve done. We can and we absolutely should. But it’s actually up to another person whether to grant that marvel of forgiveness. Showing remorse to compel forgiveness is manipulative. Remorse and forgiveness are separate actions taken by separate people and we shouldn’t conflate the two.
I think a big reason why we seek permission and forgiveness is fear — we want to eliminate the risk of failure from our lives and ensure our community won’t reject us. These are real possibilities, of course, but also surmountable. I’ve found that the people who are likely to withhold permission or forgiveness are people I probably shouldn’t entrust with my deepest confidences anyway. They’re too scared to feel safe with me. I wish happiness for them and appreciate that they’re doing their best, but I‘m not required to make my moves based on their opinions.
The good news is that there’s a genre of human who views failure very differently. And the better news is that they will become your new community. I’m talking about the fantastic weirdos who dare to enter the arena. In their mind, the only real failure is not even trying. We labor to come up with our ideas and work up the courage to go public with them. Getting mired in the unending task of getting everyone’s ‘go ahead’ would keep us from doing anything at all. And what kind of life is that?
These people may not always like what you do, but they will respect it because they know what it feels like to claim power in the absence of permission or forgiveness. They know what it feels like to stand seemingly alone with a controversial idea while the critics wail on about this oversight or that risk. Their empathy runs far deeper than the critics’ objections. Their support is the only thing you should seek, if you seek anything at all.
What if we lived in a world where we demanded initiative instead of permission? And took accountability for slip-ups in order to be more aligned with our values vs. needing those we’ve hurt to take care of us through their forgiveness? What if we stopped trying to control others by demanding they wait for our permission to swallow their fear and entered the arena? What if we reclaimed our power and encouraged others to do the same?
Ann Leckie’s gripping quote reminds me that some of our most foundational beliefs and processes are worth reassessing. If I can reframe power in a way that gives me more agency and momentum, what else becomes possible? And if this went unnoticed for 30-something years, where else am I limiting my potential?
I’m entering the arena, with or without your approval. Hope to see you there.