At the mountain of God, Horeb,1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.
A recent party reminded me of the thin veil between polite society and the darker inclinations of our nature hidden behind those facades we’ve created to mask them. Amid a gathering of friends and family infrequently assembled, there was the casual catching-up on life’s happenings, sharing of old stories, and usual affections of old acquaintances. As the evening wore on, the cursory turned to deeper waters as drink and increased familiarity interceded. Curiously, it wasn’t complex, controversial subjects that emerged but the race to the bottom of the banal in seemingly meaningless humor.
Several instances of “playfulness” turned more intense as humor revealed itself as a padded dagger, and funny quips escalated into self-assertive sarcasm aimed at potential chinks in another’s armor. For men, the game normally starts around obvious physical features: anything associated with hair – more or less, gray or not, body hair, then on to height, weight, width, etc. From there, it escalates to prowess or accomplishment: a golf game, the time one failed a test, the girl who dumped someone, etc. Playful banter turns to the will to power and some weird game of assertion that devolves into the sophomoric.
How can you tell? Look for the individual who is the butt of the joke and ask him how he feels. Just past the pride of brushing it off is the hurt boy who is taken back to the pain of similar instances in a life marked by such bullying. Humor at the expense of someone else is often a form of domination as it is an effort to assert oneself over another through their lessening or humiliation. It is a bad habit, born of other bad habits and it has, as Pope Francis has said, “a long shelf life.”
Of course, one might argue that a gathering getting a bit rowdy with the lubrication of drink is to be expected and its just harmless silliness. All’s fair in love and war, right? Alcohol, like our cars or our keyboards, often creates its own self-deceiving cocoon, emboldening us to reveal aspects of ourselves we typically make efforts to hide or restrain. Behind it all is our own desire to be right, to win, to hold the power and often, to dominate.
Dominate? Sure. We all want to be the strong and heavy wind or the fire or the earthquake. Most often, it’s masked, but it emerges at critical moments in acceptable and sometimes, unacceptable ways. Put us in competition and it jumps out like the genie from the lamp, claws and all, we are ready for combat. Watch pretty much any sports contest and you will see the desire to dominate – we all want to crush our opponents, That’s good, right? It’s just a game. However, like alcohol, it creates its own alternate universe. Check out the stands of just about any youth athletic contest and you’ll see it in all its dark glory.
But that’s not all. When else does our will to dominate rear its ugly head? When our words run out. When we can because we know we’re stronger. When what we want is more important than its cost or consequence. When we get impatient. Give us an ounce of power (or perceived power) and we’ll run with it, dominating to our end through physical, emotional, or intellectual means. In children, we often call it bullying but it runs rampant at all ages. Children aren’t only bullied by other children.
We also dominate under other more acceptable or “noble” guises. In the name of discipline. To maintain order. Have you ever seen a person dominate in the name of ensuring “compliance”? We’ll even dominate in the name of progress. We dominate in the name of what we believe is ours. Our assertion. Our power. Our stuff. This domination is to use for our own ends. Self at center. Driven by pride or self-aggrandizement, we huff and we puff, lessening the other so that we might increase.
Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.Genesis 1:26
Harsh? Perhaps. In the gathering described above, I was shocked at how quickly it reared its ugly head. As parent, competitor, leader, sibling, citizen, or any of a host of other roles, I claim no exemption. Man or woman, young or old, saintly and sinful, we are all in a constant struggle with our own will to power. Yes, there are many degrees, but we must recognize its seed within.
Curiously, a similar word, “dominion,” offers a potential counter-weight to the gravity of domination. The definition of dominion suggests sovereignty or more specifically, responsibility. In the context of dominion, the power we possess, the strength we have, the authority we’re granted, the insights we’re given, are all gifts to be stewarded. They are solemn responsibilities to be wielded well. Dominion is a calling.
Moving from domination to dominion, we begin to recognize that our responsibility as a steward of these gifts is larger than our individual circumstances. Dominion demands humility – another gift recognizing that it is not yours alone, nor is it just about you or what you want. Such stewardship is about protecting, shepherding, developing, enabling. In this sense, dominion is not about control or domination.
When we move from believing that my gifts, my power, my station, is really only my responsibility as steward, we begin to remove ourself from the center. Here, we might become the servant leader, willing the good of the other because it is our duty, our calling, our responsibility, rather than just using our powers to gratify our desires. Our gifts become power of a different sort – our might becomes strength under control and directed toward a greater purpose.
Looking across your domain, what are your responsibilities? What gifts demand stewardship of a higher sort? We are all products of the experiences of our lives. The moments we felt dominated or controlled. The fear of losing or the pain of real loss. The hurt of being belittled or humiliated. Our own patterns of behavior stem from the struggles of our own formation. However, the pattern or habit of our own response need not dominate us as there remains an opportunity to struggle against the tendencies of our own experience.
Today, in our own domain, this world we inhabit as parent, sibling, friend, leader, worker, or volunteer, presents us with chances to resist the urge to dominate to our own end. We have the opportunity to see our power, our strength or position, as the gift it is and the responsibility of our dominion as a calling to more. A calling to something beyond our own desires. The easy thing is to surrender to the powerful inclination to self. What might happen if we surrender to something bigger than self?