Content note: In this post I discuss politics. If you would rather not read about politics right now, feel free to skip this one.
Lately, perhaps with the election in progress, I find myself thinking a lot about power. What is power? Who has it and what are they doing with it? And what, if anything, does power have to do with joy?
On first impression, these two ideas feel in tension to me, a fact that always makes me want to look a bit closer. Power is forceful, driving, intense. Joy is easy, gentle, sweet. Power feels serious, joy lighthearted. The emotional quality of these two ideas is clearly different — but that doesn’t necessarily mean they conflict. Or does it?
Curious to get some different perspectives, I asked members of the Aesthetics of Joy community on Instagram: At first glance, do you see joy and power as aligned or opposed? The result was a near-perfect split: 51% “aligned,” 49% “opposed.”
I also asked people to share top of mind thoughts on the pairing of power and joy. The responses show a diverse set of ideas about power. A few examples:
- “Power can mean freedom, and freedom can bring joy.”
- “I think personally, when I’m feeling joyful I feel powerful. Like I can do anything in the whole world.”
- “I feel comfy laughing my biggest laugh when I feel powerful n equal n respected.”
- “I feel more joy when I’m letting go of the need to have power or be in control.”
- “I was joyless when I didn’t have power over my personal choices due to a strict culture.”
- “Tbh it’s difficult as a woman to be joyful and still perceived as serious, dedicated, and powerful.”
- “Seems to me power often discourages joy, thanks patriarchy.”
- “Joy and joyfulness are powerful, but traditional power (political, financial) is not generally joyful.”
- “Power without joy leads to domination, not leadership.”
- “Honestly, I’ve never thought of the two together and nothing comes to mind.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. Some people think first of a personal, more intimate form of power, one that has to do with confidence and inner strength. Others think of power in a more relational sense, and in many cases, the result is asymmetry — an abuse of power on one hand, and a feeling of powerlessness on the other. Some find joy in feeling their own power, others feel joy in letting go of control, which is not exactly power but overlaps with it. Some see joy as a force that modulates power for the better. Others view power as a force that suppresses joy, rather than encouraging it. And still others struggle to see a relationship between power and joy at all.
I was puzzling over the nuances of these different interpretations when a reader pointed me to a recent episode of Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast, in which she interviews Joe Biden. Before diving into the interview, she spends some time breaking down our complex relationship to power. It’s not that power is inherently positive or negative, Brown notes, sharing a definition from Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, in a speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee:
Power is the ability to achieve purpose and effect change.
It’s how we use power, according to Brown, that defines its moral and emotional significance. To that end, she breaks down four different types of power: power over, power to, power with, and power within. The primary contrast is between power over, which seeks to dominate others, and the other three types, which relate to empowerment and the sharing of power.
What differentiates these types of power, at root, is a fundamentally different view of where power comes from. Power over emanates from a belief that power is finite; people who view power in this way feel compelled to protect and hoard their power, and they typically use fear to do it. (Not very joyful!) Power to, with, and within, on the other hand, stem from a belief that power is infinite and that it expands when shared with others.
It was here I felt a little click. (Perhaps the sound of a lightbulb overhead?) When Brown describes power to, with, and within, she’s using the language of abundance, one of the most deeply rooted aesthetics of joy. Joy is an abundance game. The more we share it, the more it grows. Power viewed this way might come from a work of art, a group of citizens coming together to vote or protest, a leader who listens more than they talk. This is a kind of power with the potential for joy.
Power over, on the other hand, is a scarcity game. The more you share it, the less you have. If a perception of abundance brings about sharing and ease, a perception of scarcity triggers anxiety and competition. (Note that I’m talking about perceptions here, not about reality. Someone can have a staggering level of power and still feel threatened; another can be comparatively oppressed yet view power as something to be shared.) This is a particularly joyless kind of power, the kind that views power as something that must be maintained at all costs. The kind of power that needs another group to be disempowered to function, the kind of power where oppression is a necessary byproduct: a feature, not a bug.
Oppression is a joyless business. It’s ruinous for the oppressed, who face explicit and implicit threats to their well-being and joy. Forced to expend extraordinary effort just to survive, the oppressed are left little time, energy, or resources for anything else. As Toni Morrison writes, even when oppressive power is not physically violent, it is incredibly destructive:
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
It’s not just that power over steals joy from the oppressed. It’s that in a power over model, joy is viewed an existential threat. Power concentrated in the hands of the few is unbalanced, and this makes it hard to maintain. As Brené Brown notes, those who traffic in power over use fear as a means of suppression because it is easier to control a fearful populace than an ebullient one. Dictators often outlaw forms of joy, particularly collective ones such as dancing, singing, or spiritual practice, because they know that the contagious energy that springs from communal festivity can bind people together in a way that increases their power. This is why joy can be a meaningful act of resistance in a power over structure. It unites the people, restores energy depleted by the struggle for justice, and instills hope for what might be possible in a more just future. (More on the role of joy in activism here.)
But one of the less acknowledged features of a power over structure is that it also takes joy from the oppressors, who gain certain advantages in an unequal system at the expense of deeper freedoms. Take patriarchy, for example. The elevation of masculinity over femininity primarily harms women. Yet even as the system privileges men, it damages them too: not economically but emotionally, not in status but in spirit. By defining masculinity tightly, and by coding all behaviors by gender, patriarchy restricts men to a narrow range of expressions and enjoyments. Sports and beer are acceptable, pink drinks and rom coms are not. Anger is expected, tenderness is forbidden. Men must be tough, strong, and wry, not gentle, nurturing, or earnest. Because masculinity is the currency of power in a patriarchal structure, maintaining power means never doing anything that might bring that masculinity into question. The patriarchal power over structure excises the entire realm of “the feminine” from male life, depriving men of the ability to feel the joy of their full humanity.
To put a sharp point on it: you cannot benefit from an unequal power structure without being tainted by it. The same dynamic is at play in white supremacy. Brown notes that in a power over structure, leaders often seek to dehumanize specific groups in order to stoke fear and maintain control. Historically, white Westerners have done this by dismissing the cultures of Black people, indigenous people, and other peoples of color as savage or primitive, thereby justifying white supremacy, religious conversion, colonial rule, and cultural appropriation. The harm falls on the oppressed, with permanent and devastating consequences. But the loss reaches further, leaving a hole in the heart of Western culture, because we have for so long excluded and dismissed vital ideas, aesthetics, and perspectives. The effort by white Europeans to distinguish themselves from the non-white subjects of their colonies entrenched a worldview that prioritizes reason over emotion, mind over body, restrained over expressive, muted over colorful — a legacy that hinders our joy and our understanding of human nature to this day.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that oppressors’ losses are comparable to those of the oppressed. Only that the knife of power over cuts both ways, and that joy is the collateral damage. Such a power structure makes it impossible for anyone to be whole.
One takeaway, then, is that a lack of joy is an alarm bell that might suggest a power over approach to leadership. It’s notable, then, that some have observed a kind of joylessness in the current White House. In an excerpt that has circulated widely on the internet, Ellen Griffin Baker writes:
“There is no art in this White House. There is no literature or poetry in this White House. No music. No Kennedy Center award celebrations. There are no pets in this White House. No loyal man’s best friend. No Socks the family cat. No kids science fairs. No times when this president takes off his blue suit-red tie uniform and becomes human, except when he puts on his white shirt- khaki pants uniform and hides from Americans to play golf.
“There are no images of the first family enjoying themselves together in a moment of relaxation. No Obamas on the beach in Hawaii moments, or Bushes fishing in Kennebunkport, no Reagans on horseback, no Kennedys playing touch football on the Cape. I was thinking the other day of the summer when George H couldn’t catch a fish and all the grandkids made signs and counted the fish-less days. And somehow, even if you didn’t even like GHB, you got caught up in the joy of a family that loved each other and had fun.
“Where did that country go? Where did all of the fun and joy and expressions of love and happiness go? We used to be a country that did the ice bucket challenge and raised millions for charity. We used to have a president that calmed and soothed the nation instead dividing it. And a First Lady that planted a garden instead of ripping one out.”
There’s a certain privilege in this observation (the Bush years were not joyful for many, regardless of how comical it was to watch the elder Bush come up empty at the fishing line). But this necessary acknowledgement aside, it is significant to observe the elevation of glitz and anodyne sophistication over aesthetics of joy in the halls of government. (I’m thinking of Melania’s eerie red Christmas trees, which seem all more joyless now that we’ve heard her bitter complaints about having to put together a Christmas spectacle in the first place.) Some have critiqued these aesthetics on the basis of “taste,” but I think it’s more revealing to critique them on the basis of joy. Taste is superficial and subjective, but joy strikes at something much deeper.
On the other hand, consider the viral video of Joe Biden caught in the act of gleefully buying balloons, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez educating her followers on politics while cooking instant pot meals on Instagram Live, or giving out bubbles in her community. On her Instagram, she writes:
“One of my favorite parts of this is when a child blows a stream of bubbles and they float in front of a person running around the neighborhood. We are so often rushing around from one place to another. You’re running out of the subway, thinking of your next destination, or your brain is fixated on some person who was rude to you on the train, when – boop! A bubble floats in front of your nose. It makes people smile every time. Even the crankiest people have to wrestle down the good humor of it. And really, what good is any of this fight if it isn’t accompanied with an effort to be joyful along the way?”
Joy is a vulnerable emotion, but power over can admit no vulnerability. A true laugh is too intimate, so in a power over structure, the only acceptable laugh is the sarcastic laugh of mockery. In place of joy, we find schadenfreude, the German word without English equivalent that means “delight in someone else’s misfortune.” This joy isn’t what I’d consider true joy, but a pleasure tinged with envy and anger, one that leaves a hollow feeling in the chest. It’s this emotion we often hear expressed by MAGA proponents in their glee at anything that upsets what they perceive to be “the other side.” What strikes me is that this is a kind of joy that operates fully within a power over structure — it’s the joy of people who cannot imagine a world where joy does not have to be gained at someone else’s expense.
This lens also applies to the way we view power and joy in relationship to our environment. Traditionally, Western cultures have seen ourselves as having power over nature, a dominion that gives us the right to do as we please with nature’s resources. This stands in stark contrast to the way Native American and other indigenous cultures view our relationship to the land, which is one of reciprocity and mutual respect. (A power to/with/within view, in Brené Brown’s schema.) As Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it in Braiding Sweetgrass:
“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground.”
Later she sums up the difference in the viewpoints by saying that Westerners have historically understood land to be a “bundle of rights,” whereas indigenous cultures view these rights as being attached to a “bundle of responsibilities.” When we view land as something we have power over, we have no responsibility to it. We become separate and estranged from it, and it is easier to justify its desecration.
The loss here, as with culture and with people, is incalculable. Not just the joy of experiencing wild nature, not just the joy of so many species gone extinct in a flash, but the joy of our very existence on this planet, now under threat because we cannot envision a way of sharing power, rather than wielding it.
The power over nature that Western cultures espouse is often attributed to the Bible, starting from Genesis where God gives man dominion over all the other creatures. Yet this is a question of interpretation. Recently, in a conversation with On Being host Krista Tippett, theologian Ellen Davis gives a different reading, saying:
“I render it ‘exercise skilled mastery amongst the creatures’ because I think the notion of skilled mastery suggests something like a craft, an art, of being human without taking away the fact that humans do, from the perspective of almost all the biblical writers — not every single one but almost all — humans occupy a very special place of power and privilege and responsibility in the world.”
What I realize in reading this is that power over is so common to the way we view power in Western culture, it frames almost every relationship we have, right down to that with the soil under our feet. To conceptualize power in a joyful way, we have to actively reimagine it. We have to rediscover power as abundant, to remember that its gain by some does not necessarily entail a loss to others.
It’s telling to me that when I asked my community for examples of who exhibits power in a joyful way, the most frequently cited names were women, including many women of color: Oprah, Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Senator Kamala Harris, Lizzo, Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Shonda Rhimes, Dolly Parton, Reese Witherspoon, and moms. This interests me not because I think there’s something inherently more joyful about women, but because the values traditionally ascribed to femininity often look a lot like power with/to/within: listening, consensus-building, warmth, nurturance, light-heartedness. (And in fact, when men were named, often it was people like Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Barack Obama, and Pope Francis, all of whom have shown similar virtues.) These figures model a power not of brute force, violence, or fear, but of inspiration, empowerment, and shared strength.
So where does this leave us, on the eve of the most momentous election in our lifetimes? I think back to a post I wrote years ago about the idea that we have a universal right to joy. Power is joyful when it begins with this premise and seeks to enable greater joy and well-being for everyone. Power is at odds with joy when it seeks to hoard power for some, depriving others in the process.
As hard as things feel right now, it’s worth remembering that if joy is often a casualty of oppressive power, it can also be an antidote. The embrace of joy loosens the grip of power over. It counters fear, dehumanization, and detachment. It brings us back together. When I think about it this way, I feel like the stark divisions we find at this moment in the U.S. and in many places around the world are the consequence of a power structure that benefits when we are at each others’ throats. If there is a hope to resolve our differences and create a “politics of joy” in the long run, to me it lies not in redistributing power within the same zero sum game, but reframing power as something that like joy, grows the more we share it.
To me, the choice we face is clear, and the joyful direction is apparent. I only hope we have the strength to choose it.