Last Word | Empowerment

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we consider the word 'empowerment'.
Steven Scher Steven Scher
February 19, 2019

While my wife was buying our snowshoe permits for the Crystal Mountain Nordic Area, I leaned against the back of our car, put my snowshoes on, and admired the couple resting at a nearby picnic table. They’d finished their jaunt through the powder around Leach Lake. They had at least a score on our three score years and I saw them as my role models. I too would be taking to the slopes for the next two decades, no matter the whining from my knees. They were doing it. I could do it. They had seized the day. Their stooping shoulders were not to be yoked by the presumptions of society or nature. They were empowered.

We live in an era of empowerment, when many people stand in front of the mirror and see the individual staring back. We live in a time when we tell our selves that we alone get to determine our identity. Especially today, led by women who are determined that now is the time, #MeToo is the cry, empowerment is the key.

Funny then that the original definition of empower is to give official or legal power to someone or some official entity.

Its arrival as the modern concept for self-actualization took a few hundred years of debate.

When John Milton wrote “thou us empower’d,” in 1667’s Paradise Lost, it was God who granted power.

Immersed as he was in the enlightenment ideal of free and independent citizens, Thomas Jefferson knew the word as a legal charge from duly authorized governments to empower delegates to act in their interests or to empower legislatures to pay for supplies.

It is only much later, during the rights explosions of the 1970’s that empower came to have its current cachet. Civil rights activists, feminists, Latinos, Native Americans, and freedom fighters across the globe redefined empowerment as the act of the individual, alone or in concert with other like-minded citizens. That definition took hold and spread. The “we” is not some other entity, not God, nor government that grants authority. It is something we earn by asserting it, though there can be dangers from an empowered citizenry. Unyoked from empathy, it can lead to the tyranny of the mob.

Where do we learn to take the steps that lead us toward an enlightened empowerment?

In the wild.

On roiling seas, along narrow ledges, on wind swept pinnacles many moderns, women and men, transgender and cisgender, old and young, confront their challenges, test their individual mettle. The movement that takes us into the mountains is a movement of empowerment. Strength and struggle take to the trail together.

So, back to the snowshoeing excursion. As we ended our almost 5-mile trek, exhausted but proud that we’d sallied forth, an SUV carrying a family of four pulled into the parking lot. Mother, father, son, and daughter leapt out. The kids were corralled, bundled up, strapped in and set forth onto the cold bright day, no doubts in their minds that the steps they took were their own, the challenges they faced would be met.

It felt like a vision of what could be. Empowered individuals facing a future engaged in the promise of the wild.


This article originally appeared in our Spring 2018 issue of Mountaineer  Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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