The word “empowerment” is very much in the news these days. We read how the Internet, Facebook and Twitter are empowering the rebel movements in the Middle East – how empowering women has changed the American family – how important it is to empower any group seen as being discriminated against or marginalized. To empower is to “invest with power” – that change can happen when there is an investment of power by an outside source or when a group or individual somehow recognizes its inherent power. But how can change happen when individuals have never been the recipients of outside sources of power nor been able to connect to their inherent power. This is a question particularly relevant to those caught in the discrimination or marginalization by the dynamics and dysfunctions of their families and/or their cultures.
As a tool for change, metaphors and stories that act as metaphors are extremely effective in conveying special meanings based on imaginative and natural associations between one experience and another, between one psychological state and another. The story of Dumbo, the hero of an early Disney film, serves as an effective metaphor for the power of empowerment and how that original power can free an even greater power.
For those too young to have seen the 1941 film, here’s a brief outline of the plot:
Dumbo, a circus elephant, is born with unusually large ears, causing him to be taunted and bullied by the other elephants. Feeling like a failure, Dumbo fails at whatever circus act he’s assigned to do. In a move that further humiliates him, the circus assigns him the role of a clown in an act, that has him jumping into a vat of pie filling.
One evening, suffering from hiccups, Dumbo drinks a whole bucket of water containing discarded champagne and becomes very drunk. The next morning he wakes up sitting on a limb at the top of a tall tree. Dumbo has no idea how he got there even though a large black crow repeatedly tells the young elephant that he had been seen flying around for most of the night. In spite of the crow’s assurances, Dumbo can’t believe he is capable of flying. To boost the young elephant’s confidence, the crow gives him a “magic feather” and convinces him that — with the power of the magic feather — he can fly again — and so he does.
Back at the circus, Dumbo performs his stunt of jumping into the pie filling, but this time from a much higher platform. On the way down, he loses the feather, panics and starts flapping his ears — enabling him to pull out of the dive. He realizes that he can fly – just as the crow said – and he flies around the circus tent as the stunned audience looks on in amazement.
The belief in the magic of the crow’s feather first enabled Dumbo to fly out of the tree, return to the circus and risk jumping from a very high platform. Losing the feather forced him to recognize that the power to fly belonged to him and him alone, based on his anatomy — ironically on the very part of his body that had caused him to feel like a failure. His continued success as the flying elephant was now based on his own belief that he could fly.
This story captures the power and meaning of empowerment; that change can happen when a group or individual is offered an investment of power by an outside source [the crow], which then ignites the power inherent in the group or individual [Dumbo]. Are you a version of Dumbo – someone who has the inherent power to “fly” but grounded because of the internalized beliefs, biases and dysfunctions of the world you existed in as a child?
Obviously getting drunk and landing in a tree is not the answer to finding your power. But there are ways to begin to connect to the power within you. Your understanding of the hidden pressures and adaptations of your childhood can act as a first step in the process of releasing your hidden powers. A key understanding that will help you in that process is whether your disbelief in your power was based on the words and acts of another that made you feel like a failure.
Explore who in your adult world can offer an objective view of you, based on their observations of you and how you function. In other words, find the “crows” that have seen you “flying”. Having someone believe in your power can begin to prime the pump of your inherent power. These can include teachers, associates, family members that are free of the biases of the family and/or group, friends not caught in competitive dynamics, and sometimes even a stranger who sees your power in action.
Most important is your recognition that the part of you that has always been available to offer support and encouragement to another – your “sympathetic black crow” – is available to give yourself a “magic feather”. Your investment of power in another needs now to include you.