If Knowledge Is Power

People sitting around a campfire looking at the stars - we tell stories to pass down our knowledge

Knowledge and Safety

“Knowledge is power,” he told me. “Some people shouldn’t have it.”

He spoke the quip casually, quickly moving on to another part of his story, but the words stayed with me. This man, a patient at the hospital, had been sober for twenty years, even through the deaths of a daughter as a young woman and his son at the age of four. He rebuilt a life that had been tattered by addiction, incarceration, and despair, but the cruelty of strangers, the betrayal of loved ones, and the loss of dreams had taken its toll. He knew that some people could be trusted with the tender parts of him, but most could not.

What do we reveal about ourselves and to whom? Although his body had aged and was near to giving up, he was still trying to figure that out.

Since he shared so much with me, I suppose he trusted me to an extent, but his stories had the quality of something rehearsed. He seemed open, while remaining closed.

Nonetheless, he seemed to understand who he truly was. He knew that society’s judgments did not define him, that he was more than the worst thing he had done. Though he claimed a story of resilience and worthiness which he certainly had earned, the bluster and cheeriness with which he told it revealed a level of pretense.

A lot lay beneath the surface. Having suffered at the hands of those who had power over him, however, he would never again reveal too much. He hoarded knowledge to keep himself safe. Some people didn’t deserve to know who he was.

Restrictions of Knowledge

By keeping back part of himself, he retained some of his own power. We all do that. Even with family members, we don’t share every nuance of our story or every thought that flits through our mind. The more vulnerable we feel, the less we disclose.

Yet intimate relationships require trust, a trust that allows for the free sharing of knowledge and power. Sometimes we have to risk being hurt if we want to experience being loved. At other times, not even the promise of devotion is enough to make us open our hearts and minds to another being. Humans are deceitful at times, and we don’t want to give anyone power over us, not if we think they might abuse it. Nor should we.

So we have always restricted knowledge, whether it is the story of our own lives, or the story of our faith, because knowledge is a kind of power. Not only do we avoid giving strangers too much power over us, the powerful resist sharing their power. Thus, the Gnostics couched their wisdom in riddles, as did Jesus, who himself explained, “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand,’” (Matthew 13:13), as if only a few deserved to know the real truth.

Is that why Yahweh prohibited his creation from eating the fruit of “the tree of knowing of good and evil” (Gen 2:9)? Had Adam not earned the right to know its secrets? Did he and his partner, Eve, need to be initiated or prove themselves worthy, as if they had applied for membership in some secret society?

People sitting around a campfire looking at the stars - we tell stories to pass down our knowledge
Photo by Joshn Felise

Kinds of Knowledge

Apparently, the gods knew it would not do for us to become too powerful. Indeed, by seizing knowledge, we gained more power than we knew what to do with. Ever since that first illicit bite, we’ve been destroying one another, as Cain did Abel. We’ve been subduing the weak and abusing the planet. It seems Yahweh was right; we didn’t deserve to know.

Power can be used for more than harm, however. A king can choose to codify laws that encourage justice and mercy, equality and reciprocity. The rich need not terrorize the poor, and the strong need not lord it over the weak. With knowledge, and the power derived from it, we can develop the tools to create livable communities, effective treatments, loving families. We can learn to be generous, and faithful, and kind. In this case, it wouldn’t be too much knowledge that caused problems, but too little.

Yet maybe it isn’t the amount of knowledge that’s the issue, but the type.

Adam and Eve, it seemed, learned about shame. They realized they were naked and vulnerable. Frightened, they hid. In one moment, they lost their innocence, their easy relationship with Yahweh, and their home. They came to know about punishment and hardship. There wasn’t much of good in the knowledge they gained.

Our Need for Story

We can also learn facts, which is important. It helps to know how many registered voters live in Indiana, how many Ukrainians died today in the war with Russia, how much rain fell in your town last week, what plants dye things blue, or what keeps an elephant from collapsing under its own weight. This kind of information informs public policy, helps us build new things, and guides our personal decisions. There’s nothing wrong with data, and the power it confers is often benign.

But we need more than data. We even need more than the food, clothes, and shelter information helps us produce. If all they get is food and a warm bed, infants will die. We need the kind of knowledge that brings us close, that forms bonds of love and kindness. We need myth, fairy tale, personal narrative. That’s what brings us together.

The story of Eve and Adam eating the forbidden fruit doesn’t align with the facts, and it was never meant to. It aligns with our hearts. It helps us understand who we are as a community, even if that tale is not part of our sacred canon. From stories, we gain the knowledge of who we are and what matters.

From stories, we learn to understand not only with our minds, but with our hearts, our hands, our bellies, our lips. Then we can feel truth rather than dissect it. The knowledge that comes with such vision is hard to put into words, so we often distrust it. Yet it is the knowledge of the spirit, the deep wisdom that resides in our amorphous essence, the center of our being, the place in us that knows truth, even if we can’t explain it. This is what we learn from the stories we tell.

The Power of Story

Some stories, though, do a better job of uniting us than others. It depends a lot on who has the power to frame the tale, and who has the power to interpret it. One problem, even with stories that unite us, is that when we come to know ourselves as part of a community, we know others as outside it. In every culture, some people are scapegoated.

Will we ever gain enough wisdom to keep that from happening? Will we ever have that much power?

Perhaps one way to get there is to listen to the individual stories. Who lives on the margins of your society? Listen to their pain and their resilience.

This doesn’t mean the stories of the wealthy don’t matter. Even those who use their power to harm others have stories worth listening to and learning from. Yet for too many years, the stories of the abusive and totalitarian elite were the only one allowed to be told, the only ones given credence.

Too often, the myths that the powerful create merely justify their right to use and abuse other creatures, to trample the earth and those who live upon it. That’s why it’s so important to give voice to the voiceless, not because those without power are necessarily pure, but because they have knowledge the privileged lack, and they have been silenced for too long.

Accepting Wisdom

The difficulty, of course, is that we can’t make a person accept the knowledge that is akin to wisdom, the knowledge that comes of truly hearing another person’s story. We can’t force anyone to see the kind of truth that lies in the spirit. No matter what we share, some people hear only what they want to hear. If one seeks to abuse, one will either find the nugget in a tale that can destroy another person, or one will invent it.

So some people shouldn’t have information, at least not about us or those we care about. Some people have no right to our story. It’s not all bad to be careful or stay safe. Go ahead and keep things to yourself. Create a version of who you are that you can comfortably offer the world, reserving something for the ones who truly trust.

On the other hand, if knowledge is power, then we must tell the stories that are real, and deep, and intimate. We must share with one another the things that matter most, that make us grand and wonderful and horrible and sweet. This is how we connect with one another. This is how we spread compassion in the world.

Stories that Open Hearts

Just as there are many kinds of knowledge, there are many kinds of power. Some power binds us together, some is gentle and offers hope and forgiveness. If knowledge is power, then the knowledge of the heart and the spirit will feed this kindly power. Such knowledge makes us stronger together, reminds us of our best selves, helps to mend this fractured world.

Not everyone knows what to do with a knowledge of compassion. Some people abuse knowledge of any kind. The irony, though, is that those who use knowledge against others are the ones who most need that compassionate understanding, because they are the most impoverished and lonely and empty. When power is used to destroy, we not only tear down the world around us, we also tear down ourselves.

True knowledge reminds us that the most important things can’t be known with the mind. There is no this or that, no them or us.

So I invite you to spread the knowledge that heals. Tell the stories that open hearts and welcome the mystery. When we can sit together in the knowledge of not-knowing and feel the power of oneness, we can return to that source of love within us. Then we will be able to reflect it. Ultimately, no greater knowledge exists, nor any power that arises from it, than that of love.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

Photo by Joshn Felise

Copyright © 2022 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.

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