(This piece is part of a book in progress called, for now, Reweaving the Human Fabric)
I have never been successful at mastering obedience. As a child, often enough it was my attitude toward my father rather than something in particular that I did which was the cause of punishment and criticism. Obedience is highly prized in authority-based systems. No surprise, then, that my father was attempting to control my defiant spirit more than my specific actions.
Obedience is a form of submission, of giving our will to another out of fear of consequences. It is almost essential to obedience that there be no specific rationale for the action demanded by the authority. “Do as I tell you” leaves no room for questions. We are not supposed to understand, only to carry out.
My father never managed to break my spirit, as was his clear and explicit intention (my mother regularly tried to dissuade him from this plan, to no avail). My defiance, a deep-seated rebellion of the spirit, became an article of pride for me. More often than not, I did what he insisted I do, simply because I had no particular reason not to. And yet I knew that I wasn’t going to let him “get to me,” and I know much of his wrath was precisely about that.
Given my inner satisfaction at emerging from childhood with my full defiant self, I was utterly surprised when I first heard Marshall Rosenberg say: “Never give anyone the power to make you submit or rebel.” It had never before occurred to me that my rebellion, however successful, left the power in my father’s hands. Internally I was more preoccupied with not giving in than with knowing what I wanted and going for it. I chose my actions reactively, not truly from within. I didn’t see what is now so clear to me: that true choice, true freedom, emerges from inner clarity.
I still struggle with this legacy, all these years later. Any time I see someone in a position of authority, be it a police officer, a doctor, or even a therapist, I stiffen a little to protect myself. I recognize that vigilance, that intentionality of protection and defiance, as blocking my soft, open-hearted access to myself, my values, my needs, my feelings, and the choice that emerges clearly from there. Still, often enough I don’t have the inner resources to release the protection.
As luck would have it, I also became, myself, an authority figure for hundreds if not thousands of people who have studied with me. I have watched the dynamics of submission and rebellion from this side, too. I have seen people defer to me when I didn’t ask them to do so, and have felt the pain of separation, the loneliness I experience when people give their power away. I have also seen people respond to me in defiance and rebellion, react to what I didn’t say or do, just because I am in power.
I have been studying this now for years. Although I am still learning, I have already figured out some things. I know that much of the challenge revolves around asking for what we want and being asked by others. When power differences exist, which they do most of the time, even in apparently equal relationships, making requests, saying “yes,” and saying “no” are not simple matters.
Transcending the paradigm of submission and rebellion means asking for what we want without giving away our own power and without taking away the power of others. Children are usually trained to believe that the power resides with the parents. Accordingly, instead of asking for what they want, they tend to say “can I …”, a form of request that leaves the decision about what will happen with the parent. This is a form of submission. Rebellion, often in teenage years, though sometimes years earlier, takes the form of “I am going to …” without leaving any room for the parent to have a say. Freedom, for me, resides in the dialogic stance. “I would like to … and I want to know how you are about it.” Possible at any age.
Moving towards full choice also means being able to receive another’s request, however it is couched, in a way that maintains our own dignity, autonomy, and care. I continue to work on being able to say “no” without closing my heart in defiance, and on being able to say “yes” with full generosity and willingness even when someone is in a position of authority and from their perspective there is no room for dialogue. Choice is soft, empowered, intrinsic.
Such choice is at the heart of a radical consciousness that can see and understand without reacting; a consciousness that can stand up to authority without losing love. Radical consciousness means standing outside the authority structures, seeing them fully, understanding the effects they have on us and others, and knowing internally what matters to us. Sometimes what matters to us is at odds with the culture, and sometimes it is entirely within. Sometimes it aligns with what others want, and sometimes it makes us stand out in our naked vulnerability. Either way, we see, and know, and choose from within, continuing to liberate ourselves from our own blindness, fear, complicity, and mindlessness, and moving towards freedom and full human aliveness, until we become unstoppable.