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 this is not a religious discussion. I know obedience is an important idea in a religious context, and I respect 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 meant to keep 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.
I was raised with a strong work ethic and a strong volunteer ethic. Both have been solid foundations in my life, except for one thing:
Our cultural definition of work.
Work: That activity that imprisons so many of us into a schedule, into a car, into rush hour. That large piece of our life in which we must perform certain tasks in certain ways according to certain policies and procedures and do nothing else. That arena in which we compete and prostitute our power to an (all too often) toxic authority.
Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash
Work as defined by someone else and enforced through our fear of losing a paycheck. Usefulness as defined by someone else. Productivity as defined by someone else.
Then there’s workaholism. I’ve been closely connected to more than one workaholic. I used to think workaholism was a meaningless riff on alcoholism, but one day I explored it more closely because it was destroying a relationship. I bought a book (I know you’re shocked), Chained to the Desk, by Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D., and I read it and wept. I recognized a pattern I’d lived with my whole life: A pattern of unavailability.
Workaholism describes a dynamic in which we become entirely consumed by one idea or activity. Most commonly, it’s a job, but it can also manifest with volunteer work, hobbies and interests, recreational activities or ideologies like religion. Oh, and let’s not forget addiction. During active addiction as well as recovery, some lives remain centered on whatever the addiction is or was. There’s no room for anything else.
The workaholic has a primary relationship, just like an addict, and that primary relationship is all-consuming of his/her time and energy, although most of them will never, ever admit it. Workaholics are compulsively driven, self-destructive, unable to make choices, usually in denial, and they destroy relationships. They view themselves as frantically and endlessly trying to keep all the balls in the air: Family, partner, household, friends and work. Those of us connected to them experience chronic unavailability and abandonment from them and helplessly watch as they become steadily more overwhelmed, exhausted, disconnected, ill and miserable. Trying to talk about it only makes it worse.
Workaholism often begins because we are captivated by an activity we love. We have a sense of mastery and competence, or a sense of contribution. The activity seems to give us a connection to our own power. Sometimes we earn money, or recognition, or develop social bonds, or experience some other payoff that we can’t get enough of and can’t do without. Whatever it is we’re engaged with is familiar. It’s not uncomfortable, uncertain or uncontrollable. We understand what we’re doing. We can succeed at it. It doesn’t frighten or threaten us. When we’re engaged with it we’re not doing anything else. It’s the perfect distraction. We can’t be expected to do anything else. We’re not supposed to be doing anything else. We have no time for anything else. We’re working!
Meanwhile, the rest of the workaholic’s life, all the complicated, messy stuff, becomes a smoking crater. The larger the crater grows, the harder the workaholic works in order to avoid managing or facing it.
It’s a dreadful, destructive cycle.
Some people on the other end of the spectrum from the old 9-to-5, 40-hour-a-week paradigm are talking about unjobbing. Unjobbing challenges the traditional Calvinist work ethic so many of us were raised with. It explores the territory between a 40-hour-a-week job and chronic unemployment supported by foodstamps and other social subsidies. I’ve read a lot about it over the last two or three years.
Unjobbing does not imply that one doesn’t work, just that we define it more precisely, or maybe less precisely. Maybe we should stick with the classic meaning of work as an activity involving effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result, and let any reference to jobs go.
This morning, as usual, I took a walk. I took a bucket with me, because the trees are dropping their cones and I make handcrafted wreaths and other art with them. (When I lived in Colorado, I bought all these cones. Now I take a bucket on my walk and pick them up! I love it.)
Photo by Michał Grosicki on Unsplash Eastern White Pine
Anyway, as I walked I thought about all this: Work, unjobbing, workaholism, income sources. I groped around in the terminology, in my guilt and shame about not wanting to work in the way I’ve done all my life, and poked at my deeply-rooted belief that everyone must work! I thought about how expensive it can be to work, in education, in time, in energy, in clothing and equipment, in gas and transportation, in child care, in taxes and “benefits,” in self-respect and power and joy. I thought about work as a limitation, perhaps one of the biggest limiting factors in our lives.
It occurred to me that what I really want is a seamless life. I don’t want my life to look like: Work For Pay. Relationship. Creativity. Housework. Errands. Relaxation. Exercise. Volunteerism. Play. I can do more than live in a series of small boxes, much, much more. I can be more.
I want my life to be like my morning walk. I don’t set an alarm or adhere to any other kind of schedule in order to do it. It’s not a chore; I do it because I want to. It starts my day with exercise. It’s meditative, grounding and centering. It refuels my creativity. It reconnects me to my spiritual source. It provides free resource with which I can earn money and do something I love to do.
All this in a 45-minute walk. Useful. Productive. Joyful. Simple. Free. Seamless.
A seamless life. I don’t know if I can create such a life. I only just this morning identified what I really want. I’m not going to discuss with the voices in my head whether my desire is appropriate, allowed, shameful or possible. Such a discussion isn’t useful. I’ve worked all my life, for a paycheck, as a volunteer, in a household and as a parent. If I have to go back to a traditional job, I will.
But I’m going to try damned hard to find a better way.
This week I’m exploring the idea of cultural appropriation. In the linked article, cultural appropriation is defined as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” This definition provides a useful starting point, but it begs a couple of important questions.
I approach cultural appropriation from two different directions. I begin with a story I wrote years ago for oral telling. The story was inspired by the wonderful children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle . He wrote several books, among them Draw Me a Star. As a parent and librarian, I’ve bought, recommended and read aloud his books hundreds of times. You can look at ‘Draw Me a Star’ here .
“Sing me a star …” And the Artist sang a star. It was a shining star. “Color me a sun,” said the star. And the Artist colored a glowing sun, a golden lion, a hillside of orange poppies, a burning fire, and a feather. It was a red feather. “Weave me a tree,” said the feather. And the Artist wove branches and leaves and pieces of sky into a tree, and She wove fields and forests and deep, invisible roots, and a spider’s web. “Build me a fence,” said the spider. And the Artist built a fence and sculpted rocks and ice and sand and snow into a world. It was a glorious world. “Tell me a story,” said the world. And the Artist began, “Once upon a time …” It was a wonderful story. “Tell me some more!” So the Artist made all kinds of people to share all kinds of stories. They were strong people. The people said, “Teach us what love is.” And the Artist said, “Sing me a star …”
Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash
Now set your burdens down for an hour and dance with me. Here’s the sound track I made for our community dance last Monday evening.
“Symphony of the Forest and Mysterious Island,” by Kitaro a Japanese artist.
“Maryam,” by Hamza Shakkur, from the soundtrack to the movie Bab’ Aziz , a Tunisian foreign film.
“Aye Lon Lon Vadjro,” by Angelique Kidjo , an African artist.
“Kozuma,” by Professor Trance and the Energizers, who perform multicultural Trance Dance music.
“Stars Align,” by Lindsey Stirling, an American violinist.
“Mwari,” from the album World of Rhythm.
“Pinguli Pinguli Giuvaccinu,” by Savina Yannatou , a Greek artist.
“Barcelona Nights” by Ottmar Liebert, a German guitarist.
“Symphony of Dreams and A Drop of Silence” by Kitaro.
I wouldn’t steal a pencil or a nickel. It’s easy to make a distinction between concrete objects belonging to me and those that don’t. Trying to define intellectual and cultural property, however, is another thing. Part of my integrity as a storyteller includes rigorously reporting the origins of my material to my audience. Part of my integrity as a librarian and a researcher includes investigating roots and versions of old stories and communicating that information to my audience so they get a glimpse of the amazing historical journey of human creativity and experience. Part of my integrity as a writer is to be open to the world of human beings around me in all its rich history, language, symbol, tradition, spirituality, expression, art, ideas and feelings.
Anyone who creates art or delves into old oral traditions realizes cultures are not so easy to distinguish from one another, and the farther back we trace certain artifacts, oral material, symbols and traditions, the more blurred the boundaries between cultures become. Part of my motivation in becoming a storyteller is to become a link in a long, long chain of humanity that reanimates old stories. Oral tradition survives because it speaks to the culture of human beings. Themes of love, birth, death, war, change and power engage everyone. The repeating horrors of colonization, genocide, slavery, plague and pestilence, massacre and religious persecution are embedded in the history of every culture on every continent.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
It would be convenient to simplify the history of mankind into good/bad, victim/oppressor and black/white literally, as well as figuratively, but that’s an intellectually lazy and ignorant point of view. Science teaches us life is a complex, nonlinear, dynamic, holistic system, and every culture changes every other culture just by existing. Every species impacts every other species. Every organism impacts every other organism. It’s inescapable.
Culture is defined geographically, ethnically, politically, by religious belief, by shared history, by language and by physical types. All these factors and many others weave cultural definition. I define some of my cultural aspects and others also define me, sometimes accurately, sometimes ridiculously. Defining culture is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands.
Who is authorized to speak for their culture, and what gives them that authority? Who controls the sharing or withholding of cultural information? At what point do we qualify for inclusion in a culture? My own ancestry is a polyglot of Irish, Norwegian and German, at least. Am I Irish enough to be allowed to tell an Irish traditional tale? Does the fact that my skin is white prohibit me from dancing to African music and introducing others to artists like Anquelique Kidjo?
We have ample evidence that cultural purity is a fast track to cultural death. It doesn’t work in breeding animals, it doesn’t work in the plant world and it doesn’t work any better with humans. Life is not about maintaining divisions and isolated islands of purity. It never has been about that. Successful life is about biodiversity, cooperation, adaptation and hybridization. The attempt to maintain cultural purity is an attempt to restrain change, which is an attempt to harness life itself. Human beings, thank all the manifestations of divinity, are not that powerful.
Photo by Lukas Budimaier on Unsplash
What human beings are is creative. We are sensual. We thrive on expression and ritual. We hunger for spiritual nourishment. At our best, we’re observers, recorders, problem solvers, explorers and synthesists. We’re curious. As in the old stories, we go out into the world and seek our fortunes, our mates, our place, our families, our passion, our destinies and ourselves. Yes, there are plenty of madmen/women, megalomaniacs, destroyers and other pitiless, power-hungry, dangerous, destructive people out there. Entire human cultures have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but artifacts and fragments of language. Many, many other kinds of life have vanished as well, and many more are at risk. Yes, there are people who steal real property as well as intellectual property. There are people who would gladly wipe out whole groups of humans and other life, given the power. It’s happened before and it will no doubt happen again.
Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash
Have you noticed, though? Life — human, animal, plant — goes on. No one can really steal our heritage or our identity, because those things reside within us. Plagiarism and duplication are sterile things. Culture persists. It might go underground for generations in order to survive, but it persists and eventually shows itself to the world again. Stories, music, traditional arts and crafts, religious rites, dance, clothing, jewelry, language and tools are all seeds of culture. When someone with cultural seeds in their pockets reaches across boundaries to another culture, powerful, life-sustaining, magnificent collaboration happens, the kind of collaboration that allows an ordinary person like me to create a multicultural dance track and lead a small group of people (all kinds of people) in dance, which is a human cultural tradition from the dawn of man/womankind. The mingling of cultures creates new cultures, as well as sustaining the original parent cultures. If one person reading this discovers new music to add to their lives and pass on, a long history of cultural tradition goes with it and is preserved. I’ve succeeded as a link in the chain going right back to the first humans.
Eric Carle has had a hand in shaping my life, along with hundreds of other authors and illustrators. His books were read to me when I was a child, and in turn I read him to other children, including my own. He’s a unique and beautiful artist. My appreciation for his work inspired my own creativity. I was also inspired by my brother, who is a gifted musician, and I dedicate ‘The Artist’ to him, out loud, every time I tell it. I take my copy of Draw Me a Star to every telling to pass around. I’ve told ‘The Artist’ dozens and dozens of times to all kinds of audiences, children as well as adults.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
The story tells my truth. The act of creation is an act of love, appreciation and respect. Creation never happens in isolation. It’s never pure. It’s always a maelstrom of conscious and unconscious influence, memory, and inspiration from things seen, heard, read, felt and experienced. Culture is not static. It adapts, adjusts, persists, learns, discards, incorporates, borrows and contributes, or it dies.
Last week I wrote about making ourselves small. Cultural eradication makes the family of man smaller. Plagiarism kills creativity. Appropriation shrivels our souls. The threat of tribal shaming limits our joy in discovery and exploration outside our cultural boundaries. Choosing rigidity, hoarding and withholding our beautiful languages, our nourishing spiritual wisdom, our rapturous music, our skills and traditions, impoverishes us. Refusing to experience, explore and appreciate other cultures and their richness also impoverishes us. Sterility and isolation in, sterility and isolation out.
The greatest honor I can give the countless musicians, authors, artists, dancers, storytellers, photographers, sculptors, weavers, gardeners, mystics, filmmakers and other creators who grace the world is to see, to listen, to be touched, to weep, to laugh, to dance, to receive, to learn from, to be inspired by, and to add my own work to the dynamic, ever-changing culture of humanity.