Tag Archives: yes and no

Obedience

A reader commented on my last post, asking me what I thought about obedience. What a great question!

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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.

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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.

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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 need and 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.

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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.

Choosing obedience. Or not. My daily crime.

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Consent

Last month I posted about our power and ability to say both yes and no to others.  This morning I’m thinking about another level of yes and no; that is the yes and no we say to life.  At this level, the term ‘consent’ is useful.  Consent means to “give permission for something to happen,” according to a 2-second search on Google.

Consent is a huge and complex topic and there’s a great deal of discussion about different aspects of it.  For the purposes of this blog, I’m using consent in the widest sense; the way in which we approach life.

Several interactions this week have made me think about the mysterious difference between people who consent to learn and grow and those who don’t.  When I think about my observations, and people I’ve known, it’s clear to me that the difference between these two kinds of people has nothing to do with age, sex, money, gender, education, employment, intellect or family.  It has nothing to do with the color of your skin or the god(s) you worship, or where on the planet you live, or what kind of horrors you might have endured.

I’m acquainted with a writer who sent me a piece in praise of stubbornness, a quality she admires (as do I) in herself and others because to her it means a determination to survive and do well, regardless of limitations, real and perceived.  (Thank you, A!)  We might mean the same thing by consent and stubbornness, or close to it.  I see the ability to consent to learning and growth, over and over, no matter how many times we’re knocked down and cut off, as a kind of stubbornness—a refusal to give up, to close down, to conform to something that doesn’t work for us.

Without even trying I can identify seven people in my life, past and present, who don’t consent to the experience of life, the flow, the dance, the mystery and uncertainty, the synchronicity and the billions of invitations that arise for exploration, connection, understanding, growing and being.

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These folks are easy to spot.  They resist.  They argue with what is.  They deny, distract, fall into various addictions.  They don’t communicate effectively.  They care about winning, being right and power over.  They have rigid stories and expectations.  Everything that happens to them is a personal insult or a crisis.  They’re victims.  A good, deep question is a grave threat.  To my eyes, they look miserably unhappy.  They repeat the same patterns, over and over, dying a little more with each fruitless repetition.  They do not consent.  They refuse.

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Every single one of the seven people I’m thinking of has had opportunities to learn, to grow, to change, to make different choices.  They all had people in their lives who loved them and had information, tools and skills that might have enriched them.  They all had people in their lives who valued them and wanted their contribution.  They each had at least one person in their life who would have done anything to support them in learning and growing, and that person was me.

Most of those relationships are behind me now, because I have this unforgiveable quality of consent.  You might say it’s my daily crime, in fact.  My life now is based on the why, the what if, the whose rule is that, the help me understand. My life is about teach me, show me, share with me and what do you think?  My life is about doing more of what works and letting the rest go.  People who refuse and people who consent invariably have friction, because their needs are opposite.  There’s just nowhere meaningful to go.

People who consent are not perfect or perfectly happy people.  On the contrary, their lives have been filled with mess and miscalculations, abuse, addictions and other painful experiences, but they’ve learned from everything and everyone.  People who consent don’t look at their lives with bitterness or frame things as mistakes.  They see teachers, opportunities and fascinating things learned and yet to learn.  People who consent are endlessly curious.  They’re always thinking about what they don’t know and questioning what they think they do know.  They’re always seeking the hidden thing.  They’re more likely to ask questions than proselytize or lay down the law.  They’re not interested in power games or being right or winning.  They seek to understand, to explore, to exercise choice, to manage their own power.  They can laugh at themselves.  They can and do say no, but they say it to protect their integrity and needs, not to shut out or control life.

People who consent choose happiness.  That’s the most important one for me.  I’m still reaching for that.  I’ve always been a person who consents, but I’ve also chosen to stay limited in many important ways.  As I’ve learned to discern between refusal and consent, I see that living life from a state of consent results in joy.  Again, it’s got nothing to do with age, beauty, money, status or any of the things that the culture says we’re defined by.  Joy, at the end of the day, is a simple thing, arising out of being at peace with this wild ride we call life.  Joy is consenting to surrender, consenting to feel and experience, consenting to feeling fear and doing it anyway, consenting to give up trying to control all the things we can’t control.  Joy is composed of tears, blood, loss and disappointment, pain and growth.  We already have it.  It’s here, sitting on your shoulder as you read this and mine as I write.

All we have to do is consent.

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Jennifer Rose
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