Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Power to Change Others

by Troy Chapman

Not long ago, someone smashed the window in the cell next to mine and went in to steal from the prisoners who live there. When I saw what had happened I was angry, thinking about how this would affect my own behavior (having to lock things up in my locker instead of just locking my door), but also about how this tore at the integrity of the fragile sense of community we have here on our cell block. I thought too about how to change the behavior of the people who did this deed. This is something I think about often.

When I go down to the community bathroom here to brush my teeth and find a sink full of hair where someone shaved and simply walked away when they were done, or garbage on the floor, or urine on the toilet seat, I think about what can be done to make people clean up after themselves. When I see prisoners preying on one another for sex and money or stabbing each other over the pettiest things, I think about ways to make them stop. When I turn on the news and hear about some of the craziness outside prison again I think, “What would make them stop this craziness?”

I have an interesting perspective on this question because I was once one of the people I’m talking about. Others used to ask of me, “What can we do to make him stop this destructive behavior?” When we ask this question about others, there are all kinds of answers: Lock 'em up and throw away the key; execute them; inflict enough pain on them to make them think twice; wage war on them; medicate them; castrate them; take away everything they care about. But a quick look around the world leads to the conclusion that these things aren’t very effective — despite the fact that we’ve gotten very good at them. We know how to “make people pay” and yet they keep right on doing the things we don’t want them to do. Even if we kill them all, there’s another crop coming out of middle school before we get the bodies cleared away.

This plays out on every level of human experience, from the world scale where we deal with terrorists and others who are behaving destructively to our own families where our kids often take up their own version of this craziness. Figuring out how to address this effectively is perhaps the greatest challenge of our time.

I think the answer lies in understanding two different kinds of power that I call controlling power and influential power. All the answers I listed above to the question of how to change people’s behavior are examples of controlling power. We’re big on this kind of power because it makes us feel like we’re doing something. Plus, it feels good to get out there and knock some heads. When I think back to my own experience on the other side of this equation, one thing that stands out is that a lot of controlling power was directed at me. I was threatened and whipped by teachers and parents and later beaten viciously by other men in countless fights after having done something they thought I shouldn’t have done. I was sent to prison once and then again on the sentence I’m now serving. In prison I was punished and beaten some more over the years, all in an effort to “teach me a lesson” and change my behavior. And I can honestly say that it had very little positive effect on me. In fact, the more controlling power was used against me, the more I felt justified in continuing my destructive behavior.

But while all this was going on there was another power being exerted on my life from many directions. It was influential power and while this kind of power was subtle and seemingly weak, it was the kind that ultimately transformed my life.

My pastors, Gary and Carol Maleport, often tell us that we have to earn the right to speak into someone’s life. When I first heard this I wondered, “How does one earn this right?” The answer was clear. We earn the right to be listened to only by listening; we earn the right to teach only by being willing to learn from our students; we earn the right to affect only by being affected — by being touched by the people we’re trying to influence. We earn the right to demand that others care only by caring about them. This is influential power. It’s power that unfolds in mutual relationship, when the person attempting to wield it cares about and is invested in the person over whom it’s being wielded.

Controlling power usually doesn’t care about those at whom it’s directed. It cares only about how their behavior affects us. It’s a clout upside the head and has no time for namby-pamby “listening” or “love.” Those who wield it aren’t willing to be changed in any way – they don’t need to change, you need to. This power works to some extent. If we can use enough force — such as a gun to the head — we can make people do what we tell them. The problem is that once we pull that gun we become a prisoner to the task of holding it there. As soon as we look away, the person we were controlling is going to go back to what they were doing. Not only that, but now they’re mad about us pulling a gun on them and determined not to let us pull that again. They go looking for a bigger gun or catch us sleeping and bust our fingers, or seek out a thousand million other “solutions” to the problem of us trying to control them.

Controlling power seems like the most direct route to get what we want, but actually it leads in the opposite direction. Influential power seems like the longest, most indirect route, yet it begins to take us steadily toward our goal and doesn’t quit — like the turtle in the race with the hare. The catch is that to influence people we have to care about them and we don’t want to care about them. We don’t want them bothering us and making our lives difficult, but beyond that, we couldn’t care less if they get hit by a bus. And this is really the crux of the matter. Ending violence and destructive behavior in our world isn’t an impossible task. We can do it any time we choose to.

The problem is that I have to love the people who smashed that window in the cell next to mine and made me start worrying about my own property. I have to love the guys who shave and leave their hair, who throw their toilet paper on the floor and piss on the toilet seat. And the truth is, that makes me grind my teeth. It raises my hackles; it irks me and rubs me wrong like fingernails on a chalkboard. I’m not talking about “loving” them in some abstract theological way. I’m talking about talking to them, laughing at their jokes and seeing them. And all this without trying to fix them, without being able to tell them what imbeciles they really are and how they ought to be more like me — which, as you know, is something we humans love to tell others. But if I can restrain myself from doing so, the need to do so disappears. They will become more like their own higher selves, which is infinitely preferable to becoming more like me. By loving them, I show them an example of someone acting from his higher self and we’re drawn irresistibly toward this. We can’t help it. And the ones who love us most are the ones we most fervently direct this urge toward. The ones who love us most are the ones who influence us most.

This is what happened to me. As I read the words of Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Schweitzer, Nelson Mandela and countless others, I sensed a deep compassion and love for people, especially people who weren’t measuring up to what they ought to be — i.e., me. It drew me in and I devoured everything they said like it was sweet honey. This was true even when they talked tough and spoke truths I didn’t want to hear from others. It was the same with countless people in my life — officers, prisoners and others outside. It didn’t matter who they were. If they loved me, I felt it and watched them closely, listened to their words, asked them questions, and actually heeded their advice.

People who preached at me and told me what a lousy human being I was found themselves talking to a stone wall. But people who loved me got my attention. I wanted to be like them. In fact, it was they who taught me about influential power. They taught me how to really change people.

There’s certainly a time for the exercise of controlling power. I reached a point in my life where those who used it on me were completely justified in doing so. I needed to be controlled and that’s what controlling power is good for. In fact, that’s all it’s good for. We should use it when we must, but we shouldn’t expect it to change people. It doesn’t and won’t. For that we must resort to influential power or turn ourselves into perpetual controllers, which is as sorry a way to live as being one of the controlled. Both sides of that relationship are dysfunctional when it goes on for any length of time.

If I want to be an effective light in the world, I need to remember this distinction between controlling power and influential power. I need to remember that influential power is an art and that I’m not naturally very good at it. I have to practice it. I will speak to people I normally might avoid. I’ll listen to them on as many levels as I can. I’ll set myself the challenge of loving them, knowing it’s the only power I have to positively and permanently change their behavior and knowing also that the world runs on this paradox: If I really want to change people, I have to forget about controlling them.


Sid Leavitt said...

Man, that is a great essay. Thanks.

Richard said...

Another way to put it might be, like Jesus said , " Overcome evil with good". Or another way I've heard it said, and know it to be true .. ' We can ofen do more for others by correcting our own faults, than by trying to corect theirs.' Or like Paul in the scriptures said ..'Allow your reasonable nature to show'. In each instance, the key being to respond from a different frame of reference. When the element of goodness is within us, this will come naturally and automatically after awhile ..... Blessings to you .. Richard

James Woe said...

i am a high school teacher and totally agree with your essay...My favorite students to teach are those disrespectful and rowdy types. I react to them in a different way than they anticipate: calm, respectful, sincere. It usually pays off in the end. Controlling is a bore and never works, and i work with a lot of teachers who expect kids to be ready to learn, when the teacher isnt ready to listen. a shame. keep writing.
james woe