That feeling that something has to change … or else.
We’ve all felt it at one time or another.
Some people seem to feel it all the time.
Here’s the thing about insisting on change: the world will not change for you. Other people will not change for you. If you’re unhappy with the status quo in anything, job, relationships, your health, your financial condition, or anything else, the change that needs to take place is within yourself.
Not without yourself. Not your hair color, your clothing style, plastic surgery or a magical cure for whatever your particular health challenges are. Not winning the lottery. Not a drink from the Fountain of Youth. Not more of your favorite distractions and addictions. Not a new family, new friends or a new lover or partner. That’s all just gloss, and it will chip and crack and peel away like fingernail polish and there you’ll be. Again. Same old you. Same old challenges.
I don’t mean that we don’t need change in the world. I don’t
mean that at all. I’m not suggesting we all just throw up our hands and ignore
the injustices and cruelties, the greed and hatred around us. Working for
positive change is important.
Of course, we don’t necessarily agree on what positive change is … And there we still are, after that debate, with the feeling that something has to change, something big, something now, or we can’t hang on another minute.
The change I’m talking about is the hard kind of change, the kind we don’t want to make because it’s too much work. It would be so much easier if we could force others to accommodate us. Some people spend their whole lives trying unsuccessfully to control others and control their worlds. Wasted effort, and wasted lives.
Some people wait their whole lives for someone or something to change so they can be happy. A lifetime on hold waiting for customer service.
Real change is deep and dirty. It’s cleaning out our lifelong septic tanks for the first time and discovering they’re cracked and leaking stinking, sticky sludge into every aspect of our lives. It’s anguished memories and invisible habits. It’s toxic influences from those around us. It’s suppurating wounds and shame.
This is not victim shaming and blaming. This is a call to action. We can choose to stop being a victim.
That one choice, all by itself, is a huge change for someone who identifies as a victim.
It’s the hardest thing in the world to face our demons, to embrace our fears, to feel our feelings, to let go, to forgive, and to take responsibility for our own change. It’s messy, imperfect, deeply confusing, terrifying, and vulnerable.
A reader commented on my last post, asking me what I thought about obedience. What a great question!
According to Online Oxford Dictionary, obedience is “compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.”
Before we continue, let me make clear that this is not a religious discussion. I know obedience is an important idea in a religious context, and I respect that many people of faith have specific expectations about obedience as it pertains to their belief system, whatever that may be. I’m not a religious scholar, nor do I follow any formal religious framework, so I don’t feel capable of exploring that aspect of obedience.
However, the concept of obedience
is everywhere because we are social creatures and naturally form ourselves into
groups. Where there are groups there are power dynamics, and, for me, obedience
is about power.
Power, by the way, is not love.
It’s important to be clear about that.
Obedience is a timely topic, because the coronavirus crisis has changed and limited our lives in many ways, whether we agree with the necessity for masks, social distancing, lockdowns and quarantines or not.
The choice to be obedient hinges on our willingness to recognize authority. Authority is “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” I freely admit to being wary of authority, because it’s often about power-over, and that kind of dynamic takes away or limits choice.
How do we determine the legitimacy
of authority, and how do we agree on whose authority we will follow?
These are vital questions, because if we don’t trust or respect the authority giving orders and making decisions, we are less likely to be obedient.
People claim authority for all sorts of reasons, including their biological sex, the color of their skin, their age, their social position, their wealth, their education and experience, their size and strength, their religious beliefs, and their personal sense of entitlement. Some pathetically impotent people believe their willingness to intimidate or hurt another gives them authority.
Psychologically speaking, some people are better wired for obedience than others, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Nor do I view the willingness to be disobedient as necessarily negative or positive. It seems to me we need the ability to practice both in order to reclaim a vital, resilient culture.
Obedience, like faith, tolerance, respect and so many other intangible ideas, needs limits and boundaries, which means we must stay in our own personal power when we deal with authority. Mindless, blind obedience (or disobedience) is a slippery slope. An authority that cannot tolerate questions, controls information and accepts no limits is a problem.
Some people feel most comfortable with someone else in power, making decisions, mandating behavior, and keeping everything cut and dried. They keep the trains running on time and don’t worry about what’s loaded in them or where the trains are going. They do well in schools, big businesses and the military, any context with clear operating procedures and chains of command. They look to their peers and popular culture, like memes, movies and social media, to shape their opinions, tastes and in-groups. They are content to be led and influenced and often welcome authority with open arms. As long as the authority they bow to is competent and benign, all goes well.
However, authority is power, and power attracts corruption and the corruptible. Cluster B personalities are everywhere, in family systems, in religious organizations, in businesses and schools, in the military and in politics. They think they’re more important than anyone else. They think they can do whatever they want whenever they want because they’re special. They operate strictly out of self-interest and are without empathy or interest in anyone else’s well-being. They reject expert advice and collaboration, data, and education. They always have to win and be right, and must maintain their sense of superiority and control.
Such people are catastrophic authorities and don’t deserve to be in power or command obedience, but in order to discern between benign and malign authority, we must be willing to see clearly; educate ourselves about social power dynamics; research, explore and think for ourselves; and have the courage to rebel and resist. We must learn to manage our power of consent, which includes being able to freely and firmly say no or yes, and be willing to shoulder full responsibility for our actions. If we don’t do these things, we can’t recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing, and we’ll be deselected.
Obedience is a dance with choice and consequences. I am frequently disobedient in one way or another, and I accept responsibility for the consequences of my choices. Make no mistake, consequences for social disobedience can be extremely harsh. Tribal shaming, scapegoating, silencing and chronic long-term shaming and blaming are devastating to deal with and leave permanent scars.
Institutional disobedience can be punished by things like jail time, fines, getting fired or getting kicked out of businesses and venues.
Refusing to follow CDC and expert medical guidelines right now puts everyone at higher risk for illness and death, and will further destabilize the economy, the food supply, the medical system, our country, and our world.
Many methods of enforcing obedience are possible only in a power-over dynamic. The person claiming authority is in a position to withhold benefits like money, position, power or even love. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world are masters at this kind of exploitation, and it works well as long as the victim believes the authority has something they needand will make a deal.
Again, this harks back to personal power. If we are healthy enough to be self-sufficient, independent and confident of our abilities, if we love and respect ourselves and refuse to negotiate our integrity, we’re less dependent on the power of others. If we recognize malign, incompetent authorities for what they are, we’re less likely to become their victims.
I frequently choose to obey or comply with authority. It just depends on the context and the nature of the authority handing out the orders.
When I do a Google search on obedience, I find memes that imply obedience equals safety. I don’t believe that for a single second. Obedience, in my life, has never meant safety. Self-reliance has been far safer. Equating safety with obedience is an authoritarian tactic that keeps people in line. I wear a mask in public right now, per CDC guidelines, because I believe it to be a sensible choice for myself and others. It may help me avoid COVID-19, and it may help prevent me passing it to others. It does not guarantee anyone’s safety. It’s no one’s responsibility but my own to keep myself safe.
In the end, my greatest obedience is to myself and my own integrity. I trust my common sense, empathy, and wisdom. I don’t put myself in a position of dependence on others. I’m rigorous in evaluating sources of news, information and guidance, and I’m happy to submit to such authorities, not because they demand or expect it, but because I choose to.
When I underwent emotional intelligence training, my coach asked me the question, “Chocolate or vanilla?” over and over. Now, my partner and I use that phrase frequently as we live our life together. It always makes me smile.
Life is ridiculously complicated. At other times, it’s
ridiculously simple. Our experience lies in the heart of this paradox.
Chocolate or vanilla is about choice, and the recognition
and reclamation of our ability to choose is the core of emotional intelligence.
Choice is about power.
One of the many seeds that inspired this post was this article that appeared in my news feed from The Guardian: “A Dirty Secret: You Can Only Be a Writer if You Can Afford It.” It caught my attention because my reflex now is to question all these kinds of assertions, whether they are a result of my own beliefs or someone else’s.
Is that true? I asked myself.
Upon reading the article, I discover the author is making a point that earning a living by writing is difficult. Agreed. Does that mean one is not a writer if they don’t earn a living writing? That depends on how one defines what a writer is. This circles around to identity. What is a writer? What is a real writer?
Why does it matter? If a person is compelled to write, they do so. Debating what a “real” writer is, making rules about what “counts” as writing (Editing? Tech writing? Poetry? Published writing? Unpublished writing? Writing for money? Blogging for free?). Gathering statistics about the high costs of publishing, editing, hiring an agent, advertising, etc., seem to me distractions from writing, even if it’s only for twenty minutes a day.
Is the issue about choosing to live creatively or about managing our expectations about such a life and feeling disempowered by the attendant difficulties in earning a living via our creativity?
The tone of the article bothers me because it’s focused negatively. It’s about being creatively disempowered because the world is the way it is. It’s all the reasons why writers can’t be successful (whatever that means) unless they have a certain amount of money.
I don’t accept that.
Why not think about what is possible? Where is our power? The author states that space and time cost money. Is that true? We all have the same 24 hours in a day. We make hundreds of choices about how we spend that time. Some of our choices are unconscious, and some are not. The minimalism movement speaks to this. If our lives are so busy, noisy and cluttered that we don’t give our creative longings (or whatever else matters most to us) time and space, we’re the only ones who can fix that. And make no mistake, we can fix it. We have the power to simplify our lives and identify what matters most to us. If we want to. If we consent to.
As I observe myself and others navigate through their lives, it’s easy to pick out those who feel powerless from those who acknowledge at least some power. Note that power does not mean control. Power is “the ability to do something or act in a particular way.” Control is “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.” (Online Oxford Dictionary) Power is intrinsic. Control is extrinsic.
It strikes me that when we feel disempowered about one thing, we frequently expand that feeling to our whole lives. We feel victimized, stuck, fearful, hopeless and helpless. Often, we’re enraged by the unfairness of life. We desperately try to find a sense of control. Our default is to stay focused on all the places we have no power, no matter what the situation.
That focus is a choice. It might be unconscious, but it’s still a choice.
Chocolate or vanilla?
I know we each have obligations, complicated lives, and most of us need to earn a living. As a single mother of two boys, I worked a full-time job, a part-time job, did volunteer work and took online courses to complete a college degree. Believe me, I know about being overwhelmed in life. During those years I also danced, told stories, wrote, and created visual art, because that’s who I am. I didn’t earn money with my creativity, but it was what kept me going in all the other areas of my life.
I understand that sometimes we are disempowered by addiction
and/or other health issues, and we are unable to make choices because of it. In
that case, we need help, and we can choose to get it. Or not.
Chocolate or vanilla?
As for space, writing can happen on a bed, on the floor, on
a park bench, in a car, or in a Starbucks. In my life, I’m not at all sure where
the boundary is between writing and living. I seem to always be doing both,
whether or not I’m actually at the keyboard or with a pen in my hand.
Being creative is not the same as an ambition to get rich
and famous via our work. If the goal is riches and fame, we’ve stepped out of
our power. Then we’re going to need money, influence, professional support, and
a lot of luck. Even if we do achieve fame, financial security and glory,
however, let’s not kid ourselves. We’ll still need to manage our money and
time, and we’ll still have exactly as much time as everyone else does.
We’ll still have to choose between chocolate and vanilla
every minute, and if we refuse to choose, somebody else will choose for us.
We can’t reclaim or effectively hold onto our power unless
we’re willing to question everything, and questioning everything is not
supported in this culture. If we’re not living the life we want, there’s one
important question to ask:
If we feel disempowered, do we want to feel differently? Do we consent to change?
Most of us will immediately say yes, of course we don’t want
to feel disempowered! What a stupid question! BUT we can’t, because we have no
money. We have no time. We have health limitations. We can’t find work, or we
have work, but our boss hates us. Our commute is too long. We don’t have the
space we need. Nobody loves us. Nobody cares. We’re alone. We’re too old. We’re
too young. We’re too tired. We’re the wrong color or sex. Nothing and no one is
the way we need them to be in order for us to live in our power.
The truth is that our personal power has nothing to do with
the people around us or the way the world works. Only one person can
fundamentally disempower us, and that person looks back at us out of the
Another unwelcome truth is that many people who feel chronically disempowered are getting some kind of a payoff for staying stuck in that place.
This hidden payoff is a hard, hard thing to admit and excavate, take it from me. Our defenses rise, our feelings boil, our beliefs become more fanatical, all our old wounds bleed. Hidden payoffs are buried deeply in psychic war zones. Many of us never go there unless we’re forced to by some kind of a catastrophic, life-and-death situation.
I started this post on a Tuesday morning. I was sitting at my little workstation in my attic space next to an open window. The air was fresh and cool. It was misty out, and I could hear the spring song of birds. I opened my laptop and skimmed headlines about politics, COVID-19, and overnight killer tornados in Tennessee. There was the seductive content on my screen, manipulated by the media, Google, and advertising. Then there was the world outside my window, gentle, lovely, moist, and promising the new beginning of spring.
Chocolate or vanilla?
I shut the laptop, picked up a clipboard and pen, and began
this post long hand, the old-fashioned way, in my chair in front of an open
Choice. Personal power. I am a writer. My daily crime.