He who has great power should use it lightly. – Seneca
What does that mean?
This quote is from a play by Seneca, wherein the Greek heroes Pyrrhus (son of Achilles) and Agamemnon are discussing the fate (death) of a prisoner. Pyrrhus says no law forbids it, but Agamemnon cautions that the victor should be gentle in victory, knowing how such a killing can haunt a person. There are, of course, other translations from the original Latin.
In this part of the play, they are discussing that there are many things not explicitly forbidden, and that as the victor in battle, much power is given, including the life or death of those who are captured.
For us, I believe it means to be as gentle as conditions permit. Be only as harsh or as violent as you must, and be as gentle and calm as possible.
Why is being gentle with power important?
Quite simply, we’re not dinosaurs, and we’re (mostly) past the ‘might makes right’ phase of the Dark Ages. Using the ‘eye for an eye’ pattern, simply because you won, isn’t really in keeping with most modern thoughts and societal patterns. At least in my experience.
Consider a parent and a child. Which one has the physical strength? Which one has the position of power in the family? Which one needs to use their great power as lightly as possible, right? At the other extreme is yelling and hitting, none of which is particularly helpful, at least in any situation I have experienced.
What about in a religious setting? How many stories have there been of people with great power using it to bully and abuse others? From established groups to the latest fad religion/cult, it never ends well. Again, those with power often give in to the temptation to use it too heavily and too freely.
Has it ever happened to you at work, where a boss has been a little too strong in either word or deed? Have they ever abused their power to make your life miserable or even fire you? Again, the quote urges them (or even us) to be light with our wielding of power, to be gentle and kind with it.
Where can I apply this in my life?
While there were specific examples listed in the paragraphs above, there are plenty of other times when the power we wield should be used with both caution and care. I’m a big guy, so I learned this lesson early, after doing some significant damage to someone’s ankle, simply by stepping on their foot (something clumsy youngsters have been doing for a long time).
Sometimes, it isn’t that we are particularly strong or powerful, but that the other person is particularly weak or helpless. Even the smallest child has the power to cause serious injury (or worse) to a puppy, kitten, or other small pet. Even a scathing remark to a person in great emotional pain can cause serious damage to them.
Take a moment and think back through your life. Can you remember a time when someone more powerful than you caused injury to your physical self, your emotional self, or your spiritual self? Words can cut deeper than a knife, and leave no visible mark, so be sure to include those times as well.
Now think about the times in your past when you were the one who had the power, but were not as gentle with the application of it as you could have been. How many people (or pets, for that matter) have you caused harm to, and how did each time make you feel? Yes, we’re using bad memories as motivation to not do it again. Do you think I’m wielding the power of this blog too heavily?
How differently would each of these situations have turned out (hypothetically of course) if you could have been lighter and more skilled in your use of power? How much better would you feel about those events if you could go back and change how you acted?
Can you think of anything you are presently doing which may be a bit too heavy in the application of power? Could you tone it down the next time you are in that situation? Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you have to lay down the law, but if all you do is shouting and screaming, pretty soon, they will stop paying attention.
Most of us have a situation in our lives where we have some power, even if it’s only over a pet or an imaginary friend. Most of us have room for improvement in the skillful wielding of power, or at least I know I do. I try each day to be less of a jerk and be more gentle with the use of my power.
What can you do tomorrow to be lighter in your use of power, more gentle, more calm? Take a deep breath, and promise yourself to do your best to improve, even if only in the slightest. Each day, we can become a little better. Over time, that will mean a lot to others, and to yourself.