The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Powerless – Empowered – Powerful – POWER

The rain was belting down.  The traffic on the roads was inching slowly forwards.

It’s rare for rain to be this heavy in Santiago city.  It happens only a couple of times a year.  When it happens the city is not prepared for it.  A bit like snow in England!  Huge numbers take to their cars in defence against the rain.  And then sit in long traffic queues.

The day we drove in to Santiago city to buy a new windscreen for our car happened to be one of those rare days when it rained.  It was the kind of cold relentless rain we are used to in England.  We did not know at the time that the people of Santiago are not used to this type of rain.  We thought the city traffic must always be like this.  Along with everyone else we sat in the traffic queue.  In three hours we covered three kilometres.

Out on the pavements many people were carrying umbrellas, or had covered themselves with plastic bags, or simply allowed their clothes to become saturated by the rain.  Some people were walking, while others stood at bus stops, attempting to get some respite from the rain from the small bus shelter.

As we inched our way forward in the traffic we noticed the aggressive actions of many of the drivers, forcing their way forward in front of another car and then another, being pushed back by someone else, all vying for that bit of tarmac in front of them.  No doubt they were feeling the frustration of knowing a dinner would be ruined, an evening class missed, a child’s bedtime missed, or even a child still waiting at the school entrance waiting to be taken home.  Every so often there arose a chorus of tooting horns, as if that would make any difference.

Each person in their own way was feeling the powerlessness of being stuck in the traffic, trying to exert a little power, even if that power could only be exerted in the tooting of a horn.

Despite the rain, despite getting wet, many of the pedestrians seemed happy as they smiled and chatted with others as they walked.  Perhaps they had chosen not to travel by car, or wait for the buses that were already late and getting later by the minute, stuck as they were in the same traffic as every other vehicle on the road.  Some pedestrians had made choices to walk and get wet, others had made efforts to protect themselves from the worst of the rain while they walked.  Others seemed to be sharing the camaraderie of their plight as they stood under bus shelters (oh, how very British!).  Whatever their reason for not being stuck in a traffic queue of stationary cars and buses, they were exercising choices and power over their situation.

If I were a medic conducting an experiment I’d expect to find that the pedestrians had lower levels of stress hormones in their bodies, than of those trying to force their way through the rubber, plastic and metal forest of throbbing engines.  And it all comes down to POWER.  As pedestrians they had power of choice over their situation – shelter, stand still, walk, run, cover up or get wet.  The drivers could only sit still and let their stress hormones build up, unable to get respite except in aggressive driving, angry words and the occasional tooting of horns.

Feelings of powerlessness can cause aggressive behaviours as the powerless try to claw back a little sense of control in their lives, whether a parent who is being told their child is being taken away, an elderly person who is being told they have to go and live in a residential home, or a child in foster care who is told they cannot see their parents.  Others have less obvious causes: bullies in the school or workplace, perpetrators of domestic violence, or the outburst of a stranger in a public place.

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