“Mama doesn’t have powers!”


A couple of days ago, the girls were playing outside and, in a moment of opportunity, they decided they would plant flowers. This is the way they carried out their plan. There was a large pot filled with dirt next to the doorway of the apartment – the plot originally housed some type of tree or greenery that my mother-in-law had yet again purchased for us and we had yet again neglected it unto death. The pot no longer housed any greenery, but merely existed as an inert inanimate object, which they girls interpreted as their opportunity. They took some of the dirt and placed it in cups and claimed to have planted seeds within the dirt. At some point, Samantha picked up these cups and spread the dirt all over the front porch. Well, this resulted in all kinds of unforeseeable messes until Emily could take it no longer. This morning, in a spontaneous frenzy of activity, Emily quickly brushed up all the dirt from the front porch. She did this while the girls were waiting in the car to be transported to their appropriate destinations. This afternoon when Anastasia and Emily came home, Anastasia noticed that the front porch was clean and she said: “the porch is clean. Who did this?
I replied, “Mama.”
“How?”
“With powers,” I explained.
“Mama doesn’t have powers,” she insisted.

Now, this is an interesting exchange. Why is it that my explanation did not satisfy her curiosity, and why did she not only reject my explanation as possible, but insist that it was not the case? I would suggest that it has to do with her cognitive association of the term powers. The word powers for her means magical powers. So much of children’s entertainment is devoted to the idea of magical powers – the claim that there are some individuals who have incomparably unique powers that others do not possess.

This could have disastrous consequences on my Anastasia’s understanding of human power. The story of magical powers has captured her imagination. Repeated exposure to this story will communicate whether by intention or accidental consequence several propositions.

First, there are a class of human entities that possess incomparably unique powers. This is just a generic way of referring to magic. I use the term “incomparably unique” in order to designate magic apart from ordinary human capacity. An ordinary human capacity might be something like reasoning or creativity. It could be argued that some humans are more creative than others, but this does not make the faculty of creativity incomparably unique (i.e. a quality that one has in another does not.), but rather quantitatively intense. Magic, on the other hand, is a quality or property that a certain class of human beings has, while others do not.

(Now, it’s open for wider questioning whether there is such a thing as magic and furthermore, whether it’s possible that some humans possess this power while others do not.) The bottom line here is this: this proposition is put forward by the story and reinforced by the repetition. Anastasia gives evidence for this by her restricted use of the term powers.

The second proposition is this: there are a class of human entities that possess these powers, and, until some unforeseen change in fortune, she does not possess these powers. The second proposition has to do with the fact that she is a class of entity that does not have magical powers. Anastasia has clearly received this message. This is evident by the fact that she insists “Mama does not have powers.”

What will she make of these propositions? That without powers, she is powerless? Without powers, she cannot change the world? Without powers, she cannot amaze others? I’m sure I could speculate endlessly in this direction. The problem with this story is that it wears away at a humans sense of uniqueness (i.e. identity) and power (i.e., the capacity to produce changes and undergoing modification as a human). The story holds up the entity with the extraordinary power as the extraordinary human being and in the process tells a false story about how one comes into a prominent place of greatness. The true story is this: all human beings possess powers and every human being achieves greatness through an extraordinary use of ordinary powers. Humans don’t need the ability to instantaneously change water into ice to be great, but there once was a great human being who invented the freezer and thereby accomplished the same feat. (But that kind of story doesn’t capture some moviemakers imagination.)

behold, the product of ordinary human power.

behold, the product of ordinary human power.

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