The Actor's Question for People in Pain
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The Actor's Question for People in Pain

Love or power. Which will it be?

This is the real question, however much Hamlet may protest.

Love and power are the two fundamental motivations in any human interaction — at least according to my acting teacher, Deb. She trained with some big names in NYC back in the day, and I like the idea of these celebrities (before they were stars) asking this question in the utter blankness of a backbox theater: does my character want to get love right now, or acquire power? Or do I want to give love, or empower someone else?

Love or power – which will it be?

It turns out, this is a helpful question for those of us living in some sort of pain, emotional or physical. More on this in a moment.

(By the way, if you’re an actor, you can’t combine love and power and go for a little bit of both in the same scene. Since every human interchange is a pure version of trying for one OR the other — according to this acting philosophy — we must replicate this on the stage.)

Try evaluating your normal, everyday interactions through this love-or-power grid, even something as benign as ordering a sandwich from a deli counter:

There’s the girl in her visor behind the plexiglass, ponytail alive with uncontrolled hair sprouts, eyes round and ready as she anticipates your order.

Maybe she’s just getting through the day. Maybe she isn’t looking to connect with you on a deep level or assert blatant control over your person. Seems pretty even-keel, so maybe this isn’t a good example after all because only love or power create anything that’s worth watching.

But, then again…

Look closer.

She’s waiting for me to say “turkey and provolone” or “ham and cheddar,” and in this confined social setting, where people don’t venture too far outside acceptable assembly line behavior, it would be strange for her to do much to offer love in some bold way, as it would be weird for me to brazenly offer mine. This doesn’t mean this dramatic, fundamental human need for love isn’t still pulsing through every minute of our interaction, including this millisecond while she sprinkles my sandwich with oregano and salt and I watch her do it. But if I’m distracted by my phone or lost in my troubles, I have suddenly made this everyday vignette about my power over her instead. I need her to behave normally so I don’t have too much to deal with here. She needs to remain kind of faceless so I can concentrate on the important task at hand, which is whatever seems superior in my vast mental spaces.

Before you say this makes me the bad guy, remember she could be doing the very same thing to me: hoping I’m not too much trouble as she watches the clock and runs circles in her mind around problems that don’t involve me at all. We need to hold each other at bay, which is a major power flex on both our parts.

But what if we were both trying to love? Would this scene look any different? Maybe not a whole lot different (see: acceptable assembly line behavior), although more eye contact might be involved. But the interaction would leave each of us feeling differently and better, and maybe also those around us, too, though they might not consciously pick up on the reason for it.

If we can find the age-old human engines of love or power revving up in a Subway sandwich shop, how much more profoundly will we find them in those moments when our kids get home from school? Or when our spouse says some short phrase that’s fraught with meaning and requires our full attention? Will our motivation be to love or to exert power?

This question reminds me of the challenge the Apostle Paul gives us in Philippians 2, where he tells us we should have the same mindset towards each other as Christ had towards us:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This is the ultimate picture of love-instead-of-power, and this passage illustrates perfectly how the desire for love and the desire for power cannot exist in the same moment between two people. You’re either full of power and using it to your advantage, or you’re emptying yourself to love the other person. It’s a binary switch to flip.

But if we’re living with a “thorn” — a chronic illness or ongoing emotional pain — we have an even harder time flipping this switch. When you are hurting, you’re naturally in power-getting mode. You need. You lack. You want. Therefore, you strive. You try. You ruminate. You grasp. At people, at situations, at yourself. You’re a yawning pit of insatiable hunger pangs, so the idea of “becoming obedient to death” in whatever situation you’re in feels redundant. You’ve already been made to be obedient to some form of death, and you don’t like being asked to do it again. It feels like a double-down into powerlessness.

It's hard to love when you're hurting.

We thorn-pricked people have our work cut out for us, but I think we also have a great advantage. The poem Paul quotes above glosses over it quickly, but let’s stop for a moment and ponder the two-tier plunge in elevation Jesus takes. In the first one, imagine the dramatic distance Jesus must have plummeted from having “equality with God” to being “made in human likeness.” Can you even begin to picture the cosmic constriction? From glory to guts?

Then there’s the next plunge, his second descent, where Jesus goes from being “made in human likeness” to being “obedient to death.” Another voluntary dive, but this time from the smallness of being human into the nothingness of being dead. He went from gargantuanly tall to impossibly small, to nothing at all.

Two unfathomable drops, but we must try to fathom what we can. Not one of us with any thorn has doubled down quite so much as Jesus did for us. He descended once, and then he descended again, lower and deeper than I ever will, and all of this for love. We have a unique opportunity to access this concept, having been asked to double-down on self-sacrifice ourselves. But if I have any hope of acting from love rather than control in my own pain, I must spend time marinating in this truth. He did it for me. For you. And he would do it all over again if he had to — triple, quadruple times over.

I did a play once entitled She Stoops to Conquer, and I think the title says it all. Fortunately, Jesus is still stooped here with me. He’s still choosing love over power even to this day.

Maybe I can, too.


Julie K. Rhodes the author of the newest book, Chronic Grace, lives in Fort Worth, TX, with her husband Gordon and two teenage kids Drew and Maddie, plus pug Eloise ("The Eyeballs."). She performs regularly on stages all over Dallas-Fort Worth area and has multiple film and commercial credits.

You may also contact Julie at Leadership Speakers Bureau to schedule her for speaking or leadership engagements.