How Power Corrupted Me
“What are you doing?’ Asked Grandma Ollie.
My six-year-old fingers lifted a hardened mud pie out of the cooling chamber of my light-bulb powered Easy Bake Oven, and I slipped another pan of wet-dirt in the into the cooking chamber.
The cake mix that came with the toy oven was gone, but I had dirt, water, a tiny spoon and mixing bowl. That was enough to accomplish my mission.
I placed my still-warm earthen sphere on the backyard picnic table next to its’ toothpick-engraved older sibling, and vaguely felt my Grandmother’s gaze as I began to scratch the phrase, ‘I love you’ into the newest dirt-disk on my assembly line.
“Just making something,” I said.
She did not respond but continued watching momentarily before bending over to pull a few weeds from the flowerbed.
Later that day, I would spend a long delicious time placing my small message-cakes outside the doors of every neighbour who lived in the ‘Don’t Go Too Far’ zone of my childhood universe. I didn’t stick around to see if they received my messages. I just left them there. Why? Because it was unbearable to me that anyone might think no one loved them.
Good intentions guided most of my childhood. I earned badges at Brownies, obeyed teachers, played nicely with cousins, learned to tap dance, babysat and eventually acted as an unofficial peer-counsellor and designated driver for my stressed-out and occasionally Teen-Stupid friends in high school.
That is until they began their retirement-exodus to Salt Spring Island, leaving their younger (and far fewer) siblings with ALL the work. That’s when my organization promoted me five times in three years. Each time, combining the work of several Boomers into a single job.
“You’re triple booked this afternoon, and I can only postpone one meeting. You’ll have to step out of your 2:00 pm to dial into the conference call with Toronto or they won’t meet their deadline. Oh…and I’ve booked tomorrows’ flight, but you’ll have to be at the airport at 4:30 am to clear security and customs before you board. Sorry, it was the only seat left.”
“I’ve also finished your edits for the proposal, but Brad moved the deadline to TONIGHT — so you can’t check them on the plane as we thought. You’ll have to send me the final changes before you go to bed okay?”
Karen, my Assistant, after meeting me at the elevator is following me down the corridor, giving updates as I make my way to the bathroom after a long morning commute. I haven’t had time to remove my coat or put my bags down.
“Oh, and head’s up, Susan’s waiting in your office looking stressed.”
Karen’s voice trails off as she heads to the photocopier.
I hurry through the bathroom door. Feeling a slight pain as I pee, I wonder if I may have a bladder infection. It would be my third in two years, and I remember my doctor warning me they were probably caused by waiting too long to go…too often.
I was exhausted, successful, sick and more in demand every day. My team’s work had exploded, and numbers were doubling every few months. At any given moment our small group was managing two to three hundred complex projects. Projects that were literally increasing the sum total of compassion in the world. (Oh..the irony.) I was expected to be everywhere, and there seemed to be no end in sight.
Instead of applying ANY of the compassion-message we were spreading to my tired self, I tried HARDER. And by trying harder, I became harder.
My muscles tightened, I moved faster, expected more of myself and my team, lived in a chronic state of tension and fatigue, slept less, traveled more and drank more coffee. I was in a chronic state of depletion. In survival mode,
This is where corruption really began to take hold. Survival mode has a funny way of making us feel entitled, and that’s exactly what started to happen, slowly and insidiously.
The more depleted I became, the more entitled I felt to the special treatment that was becoming my new normal.
I was an overwhelmed, exhausted, ‘rising star’ getting all the perks. Upgraded hotel rooms now seemed essential for adequate sleep (though they made no difference). People assigned to ‘take care of me’ before public talks seemed incompetent if they didn’t remember to put water beside the podium.
Worst of all, I began believing that delegating without discussion and making unilateral decisions were the unavoidable costs of the time pressure that came with success.
Sometimes the stress caused me to fall apart in the shower, and I talked to my boss about what was happening more than once. But she’d long ago lost her humanity for all the same reasons that were compelling me to lose mine, and she just kept repeating: ‘the work matters too much to slow down right now.’
“I’m exhausted,” Carol said tearfully, “I don’t think anyone understands how difficult my job is these last few months.”
Carol had come to a meeting to discuss her ‘performance issues’, which my boss had insisted I hold with her since her struggle to ‘keep up’ was impacting my bosses’ reputation.
“I know,” I said, “It’s hard for all of us, but we just need you to do better.”
I remember feeling dead inside as I spoke to Carol. For the first time in my life, I felt zero compassion for a person who was legitimately suffering right in front of me.
I feel so ashamed as I write this. But it’s the truth.
Shortly after that terrible meeting with Carol, I hit bottom and took a few days off to ‘rethink my life”
I eventually found my way back through an excruciating two-year process that involved accepting I had lost the trust of my team, leaving my role, and engaging in therapy. I was an empty shell without a soul when I resigned, and coming back was a long process requiring what a Shaman might call ‘soul-retrieval.’
The path away from corruption included time in nature, rest, simplicity, writing, art-making and engaging in a deep existential search for the authentic voice I’d forfeited in the name of success.
Without compassion for myself, I’d lost the ability to feel empathy for others, which was how I’d become corrupted in the first place. I needed to receive the message my small self might have once left on my doorstep.
So I went back to the mud of my own beginnings.
Grandma Ollie didn’t interfere the day I made the I dirt-pies because there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. I was playfully working at a human pace, enjoying the process, learning and feeling engaged with my mission in a way that brought focus and pleasure, not strain.
So how do we avoid being corrupted by power?
I work for myself now. So I guess you can say I have ALL the power. So for me, staying away from the dark-side requires very intentionally sharing power with the people I serve. It also requires conscious contact with nature (including my own), moving at a human pace, writing, simplicity, daily learning, finding focus and pleasure in small meaningful tasks, and speaking in my own authentic voice.
It also means that when I mess up, I must look at the mess I’ve made with at least a modicum of humour and compassion.
It turns out, what it loves is creating and offering simple, caring, mud-pies of communication to those whom Fred Rogers might’ve called my ‘neighbours’ in this world. My fellow humans.
Whatever I can find in my own backyard is still all I have to work with, but I’m hopeful it’s enough to accomplish my mission.
How Power Corrupted Me
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