"Hidden Brain" is one of my favorite podcasts and shows on National Public Radio. A recent rebroadcast of a 2016 show has stuck in my imagination. It examined some fascinating research about power.
It seems people tend to gain power by treating others with kindness, compassion and altruism. "The connecting kid, the empathetic kid, the kid who's really open and curious" is the one who "rises in esteem and the ranks of the class." That pattern continues into adulthood.
But here's the paradox. Once these empathetic types become powerful, the seduction of power tends to undermine the very qualities that helped them rise to power in the first place. They no longer need others to gain power, so they tend to lose their focus on other people's interests, and their behavior tends to shift away from empathy.
The networks in our brain that exercise empathy toward others tend to shut down in the powerful. Our very capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling diminishes when we become powerful.
Researchers asked two groups -- one relatively poor and less powerful, the other rather elite and powerful – to identify emotions of photos of people expressing different feelings with subtle signals around the eyes. The powerful participants didn't pick up the signals.
Another study measured the brain activity where we process empathy in the frontal lobe. There was no measurable activity in the brains of students from privilege and power. The "Hidden Brain" episode discussed an hour's worth of research illustrations like these.
It has me thinking. I am a powerful person. As a priest I get to preach and lead people in worship. I am financially secure. This research confronts me and tells me that I may be blind. I like to think of myself as empathetic and compassionate, but I'm rethinking that. What am I not seeing because I am so comfortable?
I've been thinking about the many different ways we experience power and how that may shut down our capacity to empathize. Our sense of identity is related to our sense of power. When we identify strongly with a group, we feel the power of the group identity. "I am an American!" I say proudly as I attach my sense of identity to the most powerful nation in the world. What blindness does that produce in me toward people of other nations? Do I see them with the same compassion as I see my own people?
To gain identity by belonging to something bigger than oneself is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, when we band together we can create things greater and better than what we can create by ourselves. On the other hand, the power of group identity can blind us to the needs of people and groups who are different from us. When we attach power to our groups, we can create tribalism. We divide humanity into "us" and "them," and we contribute to conflict and hostility that fractures God's creation.
I've also been thinking that every form of certainty is also a form of power. In this confusing, complicated and sometimes threatening world, whenever we declare that we are absolutely certain about something, we experience a sense of power and control -- I know, therefore I don't have to dwell in the uncomfortable ambiguities any more. That's the temptation of fundamentalism and all other "isms" that break humanity into tribes of conflicting certainties.
It seems power sabotages our capacity for empathy and compassion. I think it's not just the power of money or status, but also the power of our group identities and our certainties. Power can make us blind so that we can't see beyond our own noses and groups and opinions.
Jesus points to a different way. "The leaders of the world lord it over you, ... but I am among you as one who serves." (Luke 22:24, 27)
"Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant." (Matthew 20:27)
"Blessed are you who are poor, ... you who are hungry now, ... you who weep now. ... But woe to you who are rich, ... who are full now, ... who are laughing now." (Luke 6:20f)
Jesus' teaching flips power on its ear, urging us toward the values of compassion, empathy, generosity and love.
It seems when leaders discuss public policy, it would be wise for them to ask poor and less powerful neighbors to speak first. They can help the powerful set priorities to respond to the unmet and often unseen needs of the community that may be invisible to the powerful.
If we who are powerful can empty ourselves of ego and self-centeredness, living more open, vulnerable and curious lives, maybe we can shed the temptations of power, status, identity and certainties. It seems like the only way we can love our neighbor as ourselves.
Lowell Grisham is a retired Episcopal priest who lives in Fayetteville. Email him at [email protected]