I figured since this is the tagline of the book, I should, for once, ask myself this question.
In Illuminated, Nikki has the power to experience other people’s emotions, read their thoughts, and understand their underlying beliefs. But it goes further than that: she can also influence them. Giving an order within a thought can lead to the person actually doing the thing. Manipulating feelings can make others feel safe or take away their anger. Altering someone’s beliefs can affect their entire personality.
Initially, I think all of us will think, “No, of course not. That’s wrong.”
And manipulating people is wrong. I think we can all agree on that.
However, Nikki finds herself in situations where using her powers in such a way might not be so bad. What if you could change a belief that could take away someone’s insecurity? What if it would make them self-confident? What if someone’s depressed and we could use our powers to make them feel better? Or even cure them from their depression? Would it still be wrong?
And that’s where it becomes more complicated, right? When we think about the power to control people, we think it’s something to use for selfish reasons. But when we can also use it to help other people, it becomes a different story.
I personally feel it’s still not the right thing to do. I always feel change isn’t truly change unless the person decides to change things for themselves. If a change is forced upon them by someone else, have they truly changed? They didn’t have the chance to learn and use their experiences to change. And, when it comes to curing disorders like depression, I think it’s similar to using medications. It will likely help, but because it’s very complex, there will very likely be side effects. If you change one belief, it affects others. And disorders like depression aren’t just rooted in beliefs—it’s a complex interplay of chemicals. Let’s say it would be possible to change those as well; there’s a very good chance something will go wrong.
I think the only justified reason to use these powers to control someone, is when you’re in danger. If someone would threaten me—and I mean really threaten me—I would use it as self-defense. I’d use it to calm them down and make them walk away.
I always love these types of questions because, at first glance, they seem very black-and-white. But when you think about it more, there are always instances we can think about where it might be okay to use these powers or perhaps even the right thing to do. It’s these questions that Nikki struggles with in the book as well—rarely anything is ever truly black-and-white.
I think in a best-case scenario, these powers should be used to help people understand themselves and heal themselves. I always like to compare it with an extreme form of empathy. It’s possible to use it to get people to do what you want. But it’s much better to use your empathy to help people figure out their issues and work through them. Or even if we could use it to understand each other and where we come from. We don’t always have to agree with each other. But if we can understand each other, I think it’ll be a lot easier to have meaningful conversations and affect real change.
In that sense, I feel empathy truly is a superpower.