I've done only one purely evil thing in my life, and I did it with only a split second of thought.
During a round of golf at a fancy resort in Hilton Head, S.C., I missed a two-foot putt and, on my enraged way around the hole to tap in the come-backer, I spotted a tiny little red bug making his harmless way across the green.
I slammed my putter down on it, killing it. I was angry at a missed putt, so I killed something. I immediately went hot with shame and looked around to see if my playing partners saw what I did. The bug was so small, I don't think they did.
I'm still embarrassed to admit it.
But that's not how powerful people usually do harm, when they do.
One day several years ago—must have been awhile ago, because I was still smoking—I was hungover, and out of cigarettes.
I fumbled in my closet and found my cleanest dirty shorts. I stumbled down the stairs and ambled down the city sidewalk. It was a terribly bright summer morning, and I squinted and tried to herd random synapses into thoughts.
I took a step and felt a squish under my right foot, and a splatter on my left calf.
I looked down. I had stepped on a baby bird.
I had stepped on a fucking baby bird!
It was dead. There was nothing to do but continue to the gas station, calling myself names: You big stupid oaf. You reckless, addled monster. You drunken, clumsy giant.
"Yes, give me a pack of Marlboro Lights, please. And a book of matches."
For days and weeks, I told everyone that story, as a sort of serial confession. Everyone told me there was nothing I could have done. It was an accident. A baby bird on a sidewalk was going to die anyway. I probably even saved it an agonizing death.
That, to me, is how powerful people usually do their damage: by accident.
And how they get over it: quickly, and with the help of their powerful friends.
The point of these posts on power is that understanding power requires the same as understanding poverty—empathizing with it in every way we can.
One of the few things I wrote in college that I still stand behind is a line I wrote in a short story: "All people feel the same things. We just don't feel them at the same time."
People work for powerful people, vote for powerful people, reap the rewards and suffer the consequences of decisions powerful people make.
So understanding powerful people is a prerequisite for living wisely.
And the best way to understand powerful people is to understand how we deal with power, when we have it; and to admit that we do not always deal with it well.