Two things about the billboard caught my attention. First, the woman, in her late 30s or early 40s, is a solitary figure whose image takes over the sign. Then, the caption is simple and bold: You Are Powerful.
The advertisement’s target audience is obvious. There is tremendous profit to be made by any company that successfully appeals to the more than 24 million unmarried women in the 20-year-old to 40-year-old demographic. They make up 47 percent of all women in this age group (compared with only 19 percent that were unmarried in 1968). It is no wonder savvy marketers are targeting these women, since more than 71 percent of them are employed –– with significant disposable income and independent spending decisions.
The advertisement’s psychological appeal is equally obvious. Of course there is the gender thing. You’ve seen the T-shirt with the slogan: Live, love, laugh, shop. Married or unmarried, that’s us. The advertisement also appeals to our emotional need to be “in control.” I was recently pleased to see myself described in a college newspaper article as a “strong, independent woman.” The writer and editor of that newspaper are college-aged women; aside from, perhaps, projecting their own aspirations, the desire for independence is the passionate quest of adolescents and young adults.
Those young journalists would be surprised to learn the degree of my dependence on those to whom I am bound in the deepest bonds of love and respect. I often confer with my loved ones because they offer unvarnished reactions and level-headed advice — first and foremost my husband, but also my son, daughter and mother. I also confer frequently with colleagues whose expertise I value.
While it is true that I have strong opinions and the temerity to speak my mind, I have lived long enough to discover my limitations; to learn that those I love, as well as those I work with, have needs that I can’t meet and problems that I can’t fix. Most dramatically, I have watched the ravages of illness eat away at the vitality of people who were once very strong; in health crises, none of us has the power to reverse the damage or prevent death. I have seen seemingly invincible power brokers and those solidly entrenched in the power structures brought down overnight.
When I am not on the road, I work daily in Washington, D.C., a city populated by a few powerful persons and a huge throng of those who are straining with all their might to become powerful. That by itself, I suppose, doesn’t make it any different than a thousand other cities. But what quickly becomes apparent in the world’s remaining superpower nation is that power is always fleeting and often is an illusion. Events can quickly erase power once viewed as rock solid.
The true picture, as I have come to see it, is one of human frailty and dependency. But these are not, as might be thought at first glance, reasons for discouragement or despair. Instead, they are inescapable parts of our human existence and should be valued and appreciated because they force us to learn how to live lives of connectedness and cooperation. Our reward is that we find, albeit reluctantly, not lives of power and independence, but lives full of meaning, service and significance.
Consider Exhibit A: First love’s joy and passion. What makes possible, in the beginning, the sheer and total other-centeredness of first love? To the onlooker, lovers’ total preoccupation with each other is absurd. But, if properly nourished it can grow, as it did in my case, into a mutual life-long commitment. The sexual pleasure of the married bed is nature’s bait to induce us to accept and enjoy our dependence. In time our dependence ceases to be an onerous complication. Instead, we learn that pride, ego, and the desire for independence are the mortal enemies of love. Left unchecked, they break the tender ties that not only connect us, but that provide the very strength we need to cope with our weaknesses.
The challenge of our lives lies in the multi-dimensional aspect of our human nature with its conflicting needs, desires and passions. It is the wise person who chooses the rewards of connectedness over the bitter fruit of the futile quest for power and independence.
Physicians have seen the power of connectedness in babies. Infants who received plenty of human touch grow better and act better; their emotional and intellectual growth is stimulated by skin-to-skin contact with others. Premature babies gain 47 percent more weight when their care includes more frequent touching. Adults, too, need human contact. Relationship well-being depends upon touch. In my own experience, the rituals of touch enrich my relationship with my husband. We’ve been married 44 years, and we still reach out to hold hands during prayer, whenever I exit the car, or when we walk together.
In my youth, the supposedly powerful solitary figure on the billboard might have appealed to me. No more. No matter how much our pride — particularly in our youth — would have it otherwise, nature dictates that dependency is an inherent, integral part of our existence.
Nature did not equip human females like she did the mighty female grizzly bear, which truly is powerful and independent. The mother bear is fully capable of raising her cub alone without any help, least of all from the male bear.
The human female, on the other hand, is eminently vulnerable, and the development of the human child takes years longer than in any other species.
With that in mind, we might recall exactly what becomes of the adorable, cuddly, playful bear cubs. The powerful, independent she-bear mother, in her solitary way, produces very deadly predators.