“Powershield:” a poem about power and responsibility.
Creative Arts In Medicine | February 13, 2023 | 3 min read
By Drea Burbank, MD, Putumayo, Colombia
I was in Africa
The first time I felt the power that came from being a
And I was horrified
I tried to drop it on the ground like
A live coal
And my eyes were wild
Like a mustang roped and brought to ground
With the fear of what I had
Power does that to us if we are conscious of it
It’s terrifying because
The consequences of holding power
Are that your choices, small and large
Even if you fail to make them
Can hurt someone else
I say this simply,
As though it is simple
But it is not
Because I see so many people with
Power refusing to
Accept the consequences for their
I can only assume they were unafraid
When they got it
Or maybe they never acknowledged they had it
But I felt it one day, like a rope around my neck
And I trembled
With the knowledge of it
There is a freedom in being a victim because at least
You didn’t do the bad thing
You couldn’t have done it
You were powerless
But I knew in that moment I would never really be the
Instead I would be the perpetrator, or if I was lucky the rescuer
Although that one can wear thin
But I would always be something
My mentor had been in Africa for a long time
Maybe too long
He saw it, saw me, saw my cowardice
And he said, with
Pick it up.
Pick it up and put it on and
That you have it.
Be a shield.
It was an order, and a
Of the weight of it
And I have never forgotten
You won’t either
I’d graduated medical school and was studying at Stanford when I read a faded paper handout from a community organization. It was like a bomb exploded in my mind.
“Privilege is commonly invisible to or taken for granted by people who have it. People in dominant groups often believe they have earned the privileges that they enjoy or that everyone could have access to these privileges if only they worked to earn them. In fact, privileges are unearned, and they are granted to people in the dominant groups whether they want those privileges or not, and regardless of their stated intent.“
I didn’t like the paragraph. It made me feel uncomfortable. I’d worked for my success, hadn’t I? How dare they invalidate my accomplishments. I’d always considered myself an underdog and suddenly I realized that I wasn’t anymore. Perhaps had never been.
I’d always been able to see the things I was unfairly barred from. What I didn’t want to see, and what began to dawn with crystal clarity in my mind, were the things I’d unfairly been given entre to.
The world is inequitable. All of us have inherited a history we didn’t create. We may perceive this clearly or be ignorant of it—willfully or through naivete. This poem is about how I learned to take responsibility for the power I had that I hadn’t earned.
Doctors have disproportionate power in society. This power can be given to us whether we want it or not. Yes, we can be mindful of our claims upon it. We can decouple our personal identities from the power assigned to our role. We can mindfully empower our patients and other clinical staff. We can advocate for the disempowered and work to restore more balance in the future. But we should never forget to use the power that we have with restraint and compassion.
To operate with privilege and power, and deny it, is to abdicate responsibility for the unasked-for weight of our actions.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.