Cliches are nasty little monsters, wouldn’t you agree?
They pepper the literary landscape, like righteous little signposts. They are self-evident. They require no examination. And some people look for them—even demand they be present in the art they consume.
Yet nothing is quite as satisfying as the demolition of a cliche. Or, at the very least, putting the cliche on trial and forcing it to justify its existence.
And while deconstruction is not always helpful (for example, abandoning plot, character, or the very idea of emotional stakes just because “it’s been done before”), there are some hallowed archetypes, morals, and truisms that are just begging for someone to notice that the emperor is wearing no clothes.
I’d like to talk about one of these today.
There’s a quasi-famous saying that has come to irk me. It’s the kind of trite, question-me-not statement that I can’t help but want to tear down.
In truth, I’ve encountered quite a few of these statements lately. But this one deserves special attention, if only because it’s so nakedly self-serving.
The cliche goes like this: Real strength is having power but choosing not to use it.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out the origin of this quote, nor name many examples of its use in popular media.
But you have heard it, haven’t you?
And it’s one of those things that sounds so timely and profound…as long as you don’t invest any amount of thought into it.
Because in fiction it is typically said as an admonition to a megalomaniac, who is convinced that they need to take drastic measures to change the world. But when you stop to think about it, you realize that whoever is spouting this admonition is always trying to seize control from the megalomaniac to stop their plans, and thus take the power for themselves.
As such, the statement is always hypocritical.
And When You Try Applying It to Real Life…
Imagine trying to put that statement—“Real strength is having power but choosing not to use it”—into practice in the real world. It quickly falls apart in any realistic scenario.
Say you are a judge. You worked many years in a legal profession, won a judicial nomination, and then were installed into your office by a popular vote. You now have power to adjudicate cases brought before you.
But oh no! You’ve discovered that real strength is having power and choosing not to use it.
So you don’t use your power. You shirk your duties and let the cases just pile up and up and up without giving a second thought to making a decision on any of them.
You don’t need to be a judge to see that this is not “real strength”. It’s just an abdication of your responsibility.
The same could be said for a surgeon who chooses not to use his power to save lives. Or an airline pilot who chooses not to use his power to ferry people across the world. Or an accountant who chooses not to use her power to help clients legally avoid paying taxes.
None of these people end up helping anyone. They were so concerned about whether they were worthy of their power that they didn’t consider the real-world ramifications of their inaction. Because a real-world counterargument to their pet cliche comes in the form of a question:
Why should you be entrusted with power if you’re not going to use it?
It’s the parable of the talents, revisited. Was the servant who buried his talent rewarded for his actions? Should he have been? He certainly demonstrated “real strength” in choosing not to use power that was given to him.
Or perhaps that’s too old a story for you. Let’s see how this principle has been deconstructed in a more recent book.
Weakness as a Vice in The Well of Ascension
Spoilers for the book follow. If you haven’t read it, navigate away from this page.
It’s hard to imagine, now, a time when Brandon Sanderson was obscure. But his original Mistborn trilogy was born from his days as a B-list author. Yet even then, he was bending a lot of traditional fantasy fiction cliches, even to the point of breaking them.
The central plot of Mistborn’s second book, The Well of Ascension, deals with the heroine, Vin, discovering a source of unparalleled magical power in the world. It only appears once every 1024 years, and the person who takes it up is able to reshape the world to fit their own purposes—whatever those may be.
But though she is constantly led toward the power, she is apprehensive about taking it up. All the ancient texts state that it is a wicked thing to take the power for yourself, and that doing so may even destroy the world. The last person who took up the power 1024 years previously made a real mess of things, and the ancient sages make sure to point out what a bad idea it was to keep the power. Far better to release it into the aether.
When the moment finally comes, and Vin is filled with the power, she does the “right thing” and chooses to release her hold on it, sending it away…
…where it gets picked right up by the god of Ruin, who uses it to break out of god prison, laughing all the way to the apocalypse. It turns out he was the one who wrote all those old warnings against keeping the power for yourself, because he wanted the next person who held the power to surrender it to him. The message he kept sending Vin was little different than that trite statement about “real strength”.
And it was all self-serving, all for the benefit of someone else who wanted the power, but needed someone else to choose not to use it. I honestly could not have asked for a better example from literature.
Don’t Give Up Your Power to Anyone
Power is a hard thing to come by. And the world is full of people who are trying to take it from you. They may not always demand it with a bald face. They may instead try to project some kind of moral failing onto you, slandering your good name because you dared to retain what you have.
I’ve already warned you against being too quick to comply with other people’s rules. The same needs to be said here: don’t give your power to anyone just because they insist you have to.
You might, of course, have no choice in the matter. Your power may have been granted to you conditionally, and according to those conditions, you may need to eventually surrender it. But don’t give it up in any situation where you don’t absolutely have to. And remember that other people who want your power would likely use it for the wrong reasons.
You owe it to yourself to be the megalomaniac everyone wants to stop.