Do You Have Any Power?
July 21, 2015
In the 2009 film Julie and Julia, the protagonist Julie Powell sets out to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days, and write about the experience in a blog, much like this one (sans butter). The story is an homage to Julia Child, benign obsession, and anyone who has ever aspired to take a risk and allowed themselves to become passionate about something.
Julie Powell, played by Amy Adams, is employed at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s call center, where she answers calls from citizens impacted by the World Trade Center attack and members of the general public who have complaints about the LMDC’s oft-controversial plans for rebuilding the World Trade Center.
In an understated but powerful scene that, in part, explains her year-long journey, a frustrated caller asks her, ”Do you have any power?” She replies “No” (it’s clear to the viewer that this sudden realization is devastating to her). The caller responds, “I want to speak with someone with power.”
This scene resonates with me when I think about Critical Incident Response. When we sit in the presence of a person following a potentially destabilizing event, there invariably will come a time in which we will be asked this same question: “Do you have any power?” It might come in the form of an actual spoken question, or it could come in non-verbal communication that suggests something like “I appreciate the sentiment. I really do. You seem like a nice person, and I know you’re trying to help, but do you have any power to change X, Y, and Z?”
It is a question that can stop us in our tracks due to its honesty and degree of difficulty to answer. Of course, they deserve an answer, especially after what they’ve been through. It actually may cause us to feel momentarily helpless and panicked. What if I don’t have the capacity to change certain things that an individual is convinced will make them feel more secure? What if they’re correct, and these things could actually make them more secure?
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with a dedicated consultant who called to consult because of her concern about how to answer these kinds of questions posed by employees who she anticipated (probably correctly) would be feeling very unsafe and exposed. I myself have spoken to affected employees who have asked me that question in some manner after an armed robbery.
What can you say or do for a person who is requesting assurance that they won’t end up in danger again, or who wants their employer to provide security at a store or office? I often refer to these problems as “logistical.” They are usually things we can’t control.
Oftentimes, there are realities of a financial or regulatory nature that make certain solutions difficult or nearly impossible. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of science – we can’t protect ourselves sufficiently based on the limits of the laws of physics. How do you prevent a person who has not yet committed a crime from coming to a workplace and injuring someone in a free society?
It is moments like these that serve as humbling reminders that we cannot resolve many or most of the logistical problems of the deserving people who look to us for help, and who we want to help. But what I’ve come to realize is this: it’s okay.
1) One, we can’t in good conscience try to send the message that “everything is going to be okay.” That is simply a bromide we are never able to back up, and that we can never, in good conscience, afford to offer.
2) It’s liberating to recognize that we aren’t able to solve certain problems of a logistical nature for those we try to help. We can’t build high enough walls, fund enough foundations, or recruit enough police officers. We can’t even be confident that solving logistical problems with people who seek our help will actually ultimately alleviate their apprehension or help them lead meaningful, productive lives.
Conventional wisdom confirms that our concerns about logistics are realistic, but we don’t have any control over them. So what can we do?
We can bear witness to a person’s experience, and send the message that they are seen and heard (an idea whose importance can’t be overstated, and that is the inspiration behind ritual greetings in some of the world’s oldest tribal societies). We can acknowledge that we all are vulnerable, and yet we’re not alone. We can direct those who seek reassurance to the things they can control (values, choices, the support of trusted people, routines, strengths, and past experiences that serve as reminders that they have persevered before). We can educate them about resilience. This is what we have, and what we can do. Ultimately, these things matter most. If a person asks you,”Do you have any power?” it is typically a question in search of hope rather than animosity. “Yes” you can confidently say. “And so do you.”