Are Power and Love Mutually Exclusive?

Love, as the continued effort for the happiness and wellbeing of somebody, requires constant focus and dedication. In its idealistic form, love dictates all of our thoughts and actions. In the more common scenario of human life, we balance the impulse of love with the many other drives influencing our motivations. These drives may be directed at satisfying basic needs of self-sustainment, e.g.: eating, drinking, sleeping, seeking pleasure, e.g.: playing, sex, exploring (satisfying curiosity), or they may be steered toward territorial behavior. All impulse drives fulfill the same purpose: fostering the species’ survival, either directly, e.g.: by altruism, or indirectly by fostering the individual’s survival. From an evolutionary point of view, egotistical forces (that support the individual) and altruistic drives (caring for the species) may be in conflict at times.

Giant Termite Mounds, Australia

Source: Armin Zadeh

The drive for power (dominance, influence) is a natural instinct, shared with most advanced life. It is based on territorial impulses to solidify an individual’s or a group’s position, thus maintaining access to vital resources, e.g.: habitat, food, and security to raise offspring. A more powerful, influential person is typically better positioned to find and select mating partners, support more children, and protect his/her offspring beyond its vulnerable period. In other words, power is a factor in facilitating an individual’s passing of DNA to the next generation—the ultimate evolutionary purpose of life.

The individual’s strive for power, however, may stand in conflict with the idea of the species securing its survival. Power indicates the dominance of one or more person (s) in a group over the others. In its unopposed extreme, the impulse for power may lead to struggles with other persons or groups, possibly resulting in casualties, even wars and widespread destruction. As such, the uncontrolled power drive may lead to decimation rather than growth of a population or species.

South Pacific Island

Source: Armin Zadeh

Love, on the other hand, is the ultimate force in uniting groups and developing strong bonds among populations. Scientists now believe that love is the single most important factor for the success of human development and survival.1  Power, per se, is not necessarily in conflict with love as the case of parenting illustrates. Parents naturally assume the role of power over their children—not only without seeking such power but also out of a position of love for their children. Of course, these dynamics may become more challenging as children become more independent and the parents’ influence is fading. It is the intention (the drive) to obtain or sustain power, which creates the conflict with love.

At its very core, the drive for power is contrary to the impulse of love. Seeking power implies the individual assumes a justification of superiority over others, e.g.: feeling stronger, smarter, better, more qualified, etc., to hold a position or to execute functions compared to others. Like the response to other human impulses, the drive for power is rewarded in the brain by the release of neurohormones which the person perceives as pleasing and euphoric (“power rush”). Once experienced, a person is inclined to seek the reward again.

Love, on the other hand, is generally directed at the wellbeing and happiness of others (the case of self-love is left for a separate discussion). Not only does love not assume superiority compared to others, it fundamentally arises from a position of humility, recognizing the goodness in any life. As such, love and power, as a result of their very natures, are mutually exclusive drives.  In this sense, Carl Jung was correct when he said: “Where love rules, there is no will to power; where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.” 2

This means that somebody fully devoted to love does not seek power over others. Ironically, it is difficult to find examples of such individuals in human history. History acknowledges figures of high status in our societies. Since prominence is commonly achieved by a strong drive for influence and self-promotion, few were able to convey full devotion to love in the same way. Conversely, of the many individuals who lived a life of service and humility, only a few exceptional persons made it into the history books, e.g.: the Buddha, Jesus.

Does this also mean that anybody seeking or holding a position of power and influence is devoid of love? This would not be a fair statement. However, the more a person is steered by the impulse of power, the less there is concern for love. Unlike love, which leads to soothing contentment, the drive for power is associated with a craving for repeated stimulation and, importantly, with a fear of losing the attained influence—not dissimilar to a situation of drug addiction. As with any lure, there is a risk of being driven by the (typically unconscious) desire to maintain and/or increase the position of power—leaving little room for following (or being concerned with) other impulses, e.g., love. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people of power and influence in our society do not exemplify love and kindness.

On the other hand, many human advances in the sciences and technology were attained by individuals driven by their desire for personal recognition and influence. These achievements, which may benefit society (and the species), may come at the expense of personal relationships, happiness, and love. In these cases, people prioritize an idea, craft, art, etc., over other matters in their life. While chances of success in attaining recognition and influence may increase, it appears that personal development often suffers with such unilateral focus—the “money and fame can’t buy happiness” realization. As always in life, it comes down to what one values most and what one is willing to sacrifice in exchange. A life devoted to love leads to happiness and fulfillment, but it is less likely to result in power and influence. Living with a focus on power and influence is likely to grant a position of authority but it may come at the expense of personal development. Striking a balance between the two extremes will result in exactly that, a compromise on both goals.

The dynamics of power and love exemplifies those of our daily life. Indeed, at any given moment, our mind is confronted with numerous impulses to steer our thoughts and actions, many of them directed at pleasing or sustaining ourselves, and some directed at sustaining our environment and species. The challenge and art of living is to balance these drives for a harmonious existence. Maybe somewhat counterintuitively to some, experience and evidence strongly suggests that minimizing the influence of egotistical drives while focusing on love and compassion leads to the best outcome for both the individual and the species.1

Controlling egotistical drives is difficult—their lure is strong and we are often unaware of their influence on us. That is why mindfulness and meditation are so powerful—they allow insights into our how our mind works. Yet, mindfulness and meditation require dedication and effort, which many are not willing or able to provide. Life is about balance—a seemingly mundane statement. Yet, our existence—from birth to death—is all about navigating this balance, which remains a challenge to most of us. It is a challenge for me every day.

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