My friend Bobby asked me one day, “Brian, why are the people in power assholes?”
I thought this was a great question. I was honored he asked me. I said, quite honestly, “I don’t know. Let me think about it for a while.”
So I thought about it for a while. I called Larry – my BFF – and said, “Larry, help me with this question: Why are people in power assholes?”
Here’s what came out of our conversation:
People in leadership positions have power over other people. That’s the definition of being in a leadership position.
And, when you have power over other people, at some point, you exercise that power. You have to. That’s why you were in the leadership position to begin with. You had to send someone on an errand they didn’t want to do. Or you had to force someone to do something.
A congressperson “helps” a friend make their speeding ticket disappear. It’s not nefarious. It’s an abuse of power, yes, but wouldn’t you do the same for a friend?
The exercise of power over people feels good – like a drug. And, the abuse of power leads to doing it again and again.
There’s a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Speaking about how white people treated black people, he said: “When they were putting lashes on our backs, they were putting lashes on their souls.”
In other words, the physical act of hurting another human being changes us.
Those who have power get used to manipulating people. As they do this, they change who they are.
To answer Bobby’s question, the process of having power and using it slowly transforms people in leadership positions from the idealists they might have been when they started… into assholes.
It’s human nature to abuse power. When we abuse it, we change ourselves in the process. We become the ones with “lashes” on our own souls.
In early rabbinic wisdom (Pirkei Avot 2:4) it is written:
“The brute will not fear sin. The ignoramus will not be saintly. The inhibited will not learn. The irate cannot teach. Nor can one given over to business grow wise. In a place where no one acts like a human being ought to, you can still be saintly.”
It’s that last part that tells us that assholes will be assholes, but you still ought to be the best person you can be, regardless.
This week’s spiritual-religious advice:
Forgive the assholes in your life. When they misbehave, they’re scarring their own souls. You still ought to be the best person you can be. And be good.