Adulthood and the Limits of Power

Adulthood and the Limits of Power July 28, 2016

Prospera could not make Miranda happy, but he could put a chance of happiness before her.
Prospera could not make Miranda happy, but he could put a chance of happiness before her.

When I was a boy, I thought my mom and dad could do anything. Like ZuZu in It’s a Wonderful Life, if my flower broke, I could just say: “paste it, Daddy” and he would. Part of growing up is learning (sad lesson!) that a flower cannot in fact be pasted and that Mommy and Daddy cannot fix anything.

A step in true maturity comes when we recognize that we cannot do everything. We are “mortal man doomed to die.” We have limits and these limits are not just mine, but humanity. There are some things we cannot do and even more things we should not do.

Any of us could make our day memorable to others by being wicked, but that is wrong.

Tonight I will see the play The Tempest after two weeks of watching both our political parties. Seeing the debacle in Cleveland and the cronyism in Philadelphia reminded me that there is no ultimate hope in humankind. We can name our problems, but we cannot wish them away. There is no magic that can make a bad man good or an old man young.

This is not sad if we see that it is true. At most it is bittersweet as we release the good of this life for the good of the next. In Tempest, the great mage Prospero controls both a crude creature and an airy one and he is very powerful, but he does not have all power. He can work to make other people happy, to resolve long standing problems, but with all his might he cannot make those people be happy.

Happiness must be chosen: it cannot be forced.

Why? Happiness is human flourishing. . . and a fundamental part of man’s nature is choice. We cannot make a man good by taking away his choice. We can only make him conform and sometimes this is necessary or we would not build prisons, but the prisoner is constrained, not made just or holy. If we were to break his will, then nothing would have been gained, save killing part of what made that man a man.

So Shakespeare images himself by the end of the play: mighty in words, but limited in power. He too is mortal man doomed to die and his dust is in Stratford on Avon. He can still conjure, though dead, through his words, but his bones cannot live again unless God wills it.

Why do we hide from the limits of power?

Partly we do so out of fear that if we know we cannot do anything we will grow discouraged and do nothing. This is absurd! The man who knows what cannot be done will not waste his time on the impossible and so have time to do what he can.

We sometimes confuse the very difficult with the impossible. It is was very difficult to go to the moon, just as it will be very difficult to reach Mars, but it is not impossible or immoral to go. What we cannot do with all our power is make round squares or a moral death of an innocent child. The powerful waste their time in these attempts . . . thinking redefining the words will make it better.

Shakespeare reached maturity and saw that words can conjure up many possibilities, but they cannot make a single impossibility. We can dream of fairies, but not of a just state that oppresses the poor.

At the very start of the play Prospero says:

Know thus far forth.
By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune,
Now my dear lady, hath mine enemies
Brought to this shore; and by my prescience
I find my zenith doth depend upon
A most auspicious star, whose influence
If now I court not but omit, my fortunes
Will ever after droop. Here cease more questions:
Thou art inclined to sleep; ’tis a good dullness,
And give it way: I know thou canst not choose.

Prospero sees a Fortune greater than his magical arts and this Fortune has given him a chance. His magic could not have made the circumstance, but if he is prudent, it may mend many sins. If he misses the chance, he knows it will not come again.

So it goes with our adult lives. We have today the power of the circumstances Fortune has brought to us and the power of our words. Our bodies and our souls are, to some extent, at our command and we can offer the opportunity of happiness to everyone around us.

We cannot rule them, but we can set them up to rule themselves if they will. In this disappointing time, when our leaders are children thinking that some Mommy or Daddy can paste it, we can be adults. If we cannot make new leaders, we can patiently wait until Providence gives us the chance today to offer happiness to someone.

This is God’s own magic and it is good.


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