The Nature of Our Power

Extracts from the book coming back to life, Chapter 3, “The Basic Miracle – Our True Nature and Power”, by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown.

Just as our pain for the world arises from our connectivity, so does our power. Yet the generative creativity operating in and through open systems is very different from our customary notions of power.

Power Over

This is a linear, unidirectional view of causality. Here power is seen as a possession — something you have and can get for yourself — and plays out in a zero-sum game: the more of it you have, the less I have; if you win, I lose.


In this view, power correlates with invulnerability. To keep from being pushed around, defenses are needed; armor and rigidity appear to make one more powerful, less likely to be influenced or changed by others.


From the systems perspective this notion of power is both inaccurate and dysfunctional. The exertion of greater force can certainly serve to defend oneself and others, but that function is one of protection, not to be confused with the kind of power that generates new forms, behaviors and potentials. That capacity emerges with and functions through relationship. We can call it power with or synergy.

Power With

To the social system, power over is dysfunctional because it inhibits diversity and feedback; by obstructing self-organizing processes, it fosters entropy or systemic disintegration.

Power with or synergy is not a property one can own, but a process one engages in.

Power Over Blocks Feedback

Democracy requires the free circulation of information for public decision-making. In the present hypertrophied stage of the Industrial Growth Society, however, even governments that call themselves democracies suppress information unwelcome to corporate interests.

Any system that consistently suppresses feedback — closing its perceptions to the results of its behavior — is committing suicide.

Synergy and Grace

It is our responsibility to give feedback to our body politic and to unblock feedback that has been suppressed. This is essential to the Great Turning from the Industrial Growth Society to a Life-Sustaining Society.

Our connectivity with others in the web of life does not mean that we should tolerate destructive behavior. On the contrary, it means we should step in when our collective health and survival are at stake.

The Power of Disclosure

The resources we need are present within the web of life that interconnects us.
This is the nature of synergy, the first property of living systems. As parts self-organize into a larger whole, capacities emerge that could never have been predicted and that the individual parts did not possess. The weaving of new connections brings new responses and new possibilities into play. In the process, we can feel sustained — and are sustained — by currents of power arising from our solidarity.
This phenomenon is similar to the religious concept of grace, but does not require belief in a God.

Grace happens when we act with others on behalf of our world.

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