If I ask you to name a powerful person, who comes to mind? Chances are, you think of someone with physical power — a friend, perhaps, who exercises daily and can lift a Volkswagen, or a defensive tackle who, like a raging bull, sacks quarterbacks.
Or you might think of someone with financial power — a family member who hit the jackpot in the stock market or a Jeff Bezos-type who has more money than the U.S. government.
Or you might think of someone with political power — a governor who governs with an iron fist or the president meeting with a foreign dignitary.
Whomever you think of when I ask you to name someone powerful, it is probable that this person has physical strength, financial clout or political prestige. Those are the criteria by which we in our culture define “power.”
But what if the task at hand requires something this kind of power can’t touch? What if, for example, you want to mend the broken heart of someone who is grieving the death of a child? What if you want to write a poem? What if you want to teach a child to read? What if you want to win the heart of someone you might be falling in love with?
Those tasks require a different kind of power that transcends physical, financial or political clout. Our current definition of power is not sufficient. It doesn’t cover a host of tasks that need doing, tasks no kind of “force” or “domination” can accomplish.
Martin Luther, the German Reformer, once proposed that we think of power in another way. He suggested that there are actually two kinds of power — right-handed power and left-handed power.
Right-handed power is straight-line and hard-nosed and includes the activities of defensive tackles, stock market millionaires and government leaders. Right-handed power is direct, confrontational and obvious. When we think of power, it is nearly always right-handed power that we have in mind.
Left-handed power is neither straight-line nor hard-nosed. It tends to be indirect, non-confrontational, quiet and unnoticed. Left-handed power is someone mending a broken heart, writing a poem, teaching a child to read or trying to win another person’s heart.
Left-handed power is often not seen as power at all, but it is.
If I showed you an axe that weights 10 pounds and a razor that weighs a few ounces and asked you which was the most powerful tool, you would probably choose the axe. But if you need a good shave, the razor is actually the most powerful implement. If your most pressing need is a close shave, a 10-pound axe is useless to you.
Perhaps what we need in our world right now is a new definition of power — a definition that allows us to include the left-handed variety. How about this one? Power is the ability to accomplish purpose.
When I look back at my own life, I realize that the people who have been the most influential are the ones who used left-handed power. I have seldom been coerced or dominated into making necessary changes. But, on many occasions, I have been whispered, encouraged and loved into changing.
For that reason, I suppose, I want to make sure that we don’t forget the power of the left-hand. Let’s use the heavy axe when it is needed, but let’s not forget the power of the tiny razor either.
Let’s never think that the quiet, unassuming, ever-faithful people in our lives are powerless. When we survey our personal history and list the most powerful people in our lives, they’re inevitably at the top of the list.