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.
Tarot cards appeared in the fourteenth century, when they were used primarily for play. Sometime in the eighteenth century, the cards began to be used for cartomancy. Tarot cards are archetypal (they illustrate recurrent symbols), and countless modern decks are available, some of which are beautiful works of art.
When I work with the Tarot, I use a common classic 10-card spread called the Celtic cross. One of the richest and most enigmatic parts of the Celtic cross spread are the seventh and eighth cards, representing the querent as he/she sees him/herself and the querent as others see him/her.
I’ve learned, after decades of working with the cards, to pay close attention to what lands in those two places. If the cards have similarities, I know I’m living with reasonable authenticity. I’m staying grounded in who I am, and I’m showing up in the world and in my relationships honestly. I have a sense of being at home, of belonging in my own life. My connections feel solid and healthy.
If the cards are wildly opposing, however, I think carefully about what’s going on. In emotional intelligence coaching, this gap is key. Whatever is hidden between our own authentic experience and how others see us can be excavated, examined, healed, released, and/or renewed. The most effective coaches coach to the gaps.
In psychology, this idea is expressed with the Johari window, a model used to illustrate the relationship between ourselves and others.
What’s in that square of the Johari window that nobody knows, not us, and not others? What lies in the cleft between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us? What possibility or potential sleeps or hibernates there, waiting to wake up or be discovered? What insight and information are we missing as we look at others and ourselves?
Here are some possibilities:
We have crafted a highly-polished and highly-defended pseudo self and our authenticity is buried underneath it.
We are keeping too many secrets out of shame or fear; our authenticity is blocked. We are trying to stay safe.
We are low in our ability to emotionally express ourselves.
We have no idea who we really are; we accept the expectations of others about what we should or must be and try to fit those definitions.
Our closest connections are not healthy; those around us are employing abusive tactics like gaslighting, projection, smear campaigns and chronic blaming. We know who we are, but we’re overwhelmed by what they say about who we are. We’re in the wrong place, connected to the wrong people.
We ourselves are a Cluster B disordered person; we are unable to have insight into why we do what we do or the ways our behavior and choices affect those around us. We think of ourselves as victims and blame others.
We are too fearful to explore ourselves or others or ask or answer questions.
It doesn’t matter if we approach these kinds of questions via a mystical route or a more science-based path, to be human is to ponder about who we are and what we are for; to strive to make meaning out of our lives and experience.
We believe we know what we know, and we spend a lot of time defending that knowledge. We’re much less comfortable with what we don’t know, and some people refuse to explore that terrain at all.
For me, however, that uncharted territory, both within and without, is where all the good stuff is. The cracks and crevices, the blind and blank spots, are filled with the possibility and potential of insight and clarity. Healing is there, though it may come about through cautery or amputation. Growth is there, though it might mean our bones ache and we must alter our lives to accommodate that growth.
As humans, we are social, and we need others in order to survive and thrive. When I consider the rift between how I see myself and how others see me, I remember the power we each have in the lives around us, and the power those around us have on us. We can’t change other people, or save them (especially from themselves), but we can and do have influence on others. When we believe in the good things in others, we are making a difference. When we choose to manipulate or tear down others, we are making another kind of difference. This is the line between friends and frenemies.
It makes me squirm to understand the people around me know things about me I’m blind to, and see me in ways I can never access. I feel exposed and vulnerable. Yet the same is true for everyone. If my friends feel the same kind of affection and willingness to allow me to be who I am that I feel for them, I’m both humbled and grateful, but I’m still squirming — just a little!
I learned long ago the people I want to be closely connected to are willing to live with some degree of authenticity. My best friends have been those who told me the truth; the ones who let me know when I’m off the rails, or otherwise acting like an idiot. If we can’t tolerate feedback from others, we lose a quarter of the Johari window; a quarter of our available experience, potential, strength and growth.
Likewise, if we are unable or unwilling to give honest feedback to others, they lose a quarter of their Johari Window.
It’s only in the tension of connection we become greater than the sum of our parts, greater than we could ever be on our own. The powerful friction and shaping that occurs in relationships forces us to explore, discover, question, learn, unlearn, adapt and adjust more than we would ever do in isolation.
The word “respect” is jumping up and down in my life this week, hand thrust in the air, saying “me, me, me!”
This post started with more from R. D. Laing’s book, Knots:
“A son should respect his father. He should not have to be taught to respect his father. It is something that is natural.
It is the duty of children to respect their parents. And it is the duty of parents to teach their children to respect them, by setting a good example.
Parents who do not set their children a good example don’t deserve respect.“
As usual, I have thoughts and questions. ‘Should’ is a word I shun. It implies arguing with what is. Who says a son (or any child) should respect his father? I believe this rule has its roots in the Bible and/or other spiritual traditions. Does that mean it can’t be questioned? (This is a trick question. If you say no, I will immediately start questioning it!)
Is respect ever a given? Do we (must we) “naturally” respect others? Are we born knowing how to respect others? Are we born knowing how to respect ourselves, or do we learn by watching those around us? (For more on parenting and respect, here’s the perspective of parenting expert and author of Connection Parenting, Pam Leo.)
What’s a “good example,” and who gets to define it?
What the heck does respect mean, anyway?
According to Oxford online dictionary, the meaning of respect includes “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicted by their abilities, qualities, or achievements” as well as “due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others.”
Aha! Two distinct meanings.
Across both digital and face-to-face human interaction, I see a troubling pattern of boundary loss and deliberate blurring of terms such as respect. It seems suddenly we are expected to blindly respect, in the sense of deeply admire, everyone, no matter their words or actions. Worse than that, we’re supposed to agree with the ideologies and beliefs of others. Respect and agreement have come to mean the same thing. If we don’t agree with someone’s thoughts, feelings and beliefs, we’re haters and bigots. We have no respect.
Newsflash: Agreement and respect are not the same thing. They are not mutually exclusive, but they have different meanings. They may appear together. They can and do exist independent of one another.
Additionally, disagreement is not hate and is no measure of compassion, which can be fully present with either agreement or disagreement.
I found a perfect explanation of this in the Wiki entry for conflation:
“In an alternate illustrative example, respect is used both in the sense of “recognise a right” and “have high regard for”. We can recognise someone’s right to the opinion the United Nations is secretly controlled by alien lizards on the moon, without holding this idea in high regard. But conflation of these two different concepts leads to the notion that all ideological ideas should be treated with respect, rather than just the right to hold these ideas.”
I can understand the desperate search for some kind of certainty in life, some kind of code-breaking formula to help us make sense of everything from relationships to global change. I also understand many people are so busy trying to survive and cope with their day-to-day lives that discussions, explorations and distinctions of the kind I’m preoccupied with have no meaning. The world is full of people who take the attitude of TLDR (too long; didn’t read). It’s so much easier to attach to a meme or belief system along the lines of they’re for me or against me.
Unfortunately, reality is a lot more complicated than that and life is not black and white. Nothing is certain. People change. New information appears. We’re frequently trying to unlearn. In spite of how much we want to be right, much of the time we’re wrong. Refusing to take in any new information for fear it will threaten our safe place to stand will not keep us in control or protect us. What it will do is wither our critical thinking skills, our curiosity and our appreciation of others.
I endeavor to treat everyone respectfully, by which I mean I have space for people to believe what they believe. In general, I am successful in this intention. That being said, I view respect similarly to tolerance, as a peace treaty. Nobody likes to be attacked, and I’m no exception to that. I don’t attack others, but I will defend myself. I don’t think we’re all automatically entitled to respect, and I certainly don’t think I am. I’m also perfectly prepared for others to disagree with me on any given subject. That doesn’t mean (to me) we can’t have a respectful conversation about the issue we disagree upon, and it doesn’t mean I excise people from my life who hold different beliefs than I do.
I also recognize there are people in the world who intend to silence all disagreement and demand respect from everyone without giving it. This is cluster B behavior, and it’s about power and control over others. This population in particular seeks to conflate things like respect and agreement, using malicious and often ridiculous labels and jargon, threats, punishment and violence to silence and intimidate others. This behavior is called coercion. Some people say they want respect, but what they’re really after is agreement. Respect alone does not satisfy them.
I was once confronted by an extremely unpleasant woman who demanded to know if I am pro-choice or pro-life. It wasn’t her business, but I had no wish to escalate her drama, so I answered her truthfully and quietly: “Both.”
She immediately became both abusive and threatening, demanding I answer one way or another and telling me I couldn’t be both.
Excuse me? I can and am both. I said above I can understand why people adhere to black-and-white thinking, but I will not have it forced upon me. I don’t agree with such thinking or trust it, and I refuse to employ it. I was willing to respect her right to an either/or ideology, but I pushed back when she tried to force it on me.
Ironically, I find myself to be The Enemy, even among loved ones, because I disagree with some current ideologies, or I refuse to take a polarized stance. As I am one of the least judgmental and most respectful (in the sense of “due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others,”) people I know, this is a bitter twist, and the injustice of it hurts. Reciprocity is nice, if you can get it.
Which brings me to the last aspect of respect I’ve been thinking about, which probably should be first, if I wrote this essay in order of importance.
What about self-respect?
Who teaches us to respect ourselves, or is that innate or “natural?” If it’s taught, do we learn best if the adults around us model self-respect and support us in giving it to ourselves? If it’s innate, can the adults around us damage our self-respect or force us to choose between respecting ourselves and respecting them? If we have little or no self-respect, are we greatly compelled to persuade or coerce others to support our beliefs? What brings us more satisfaction, respecting ourselves or feeling respected by others? Can the respect of others ever replace our self-respect?
As usual, I have more questions than answers, but I can say two things with confidence:
Respect and agreement are not the same thing.
I have no power to make others respect me, but I have complete power over whether I respect myself.
My partner and I have been watching Lie To Me, a television series that ran on Fox from 2009 to 2011. The show is based on the work of Dr. Paul Ekman, the world’s greatest expert on facial expression.
Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash
I am absolutely fascinated.
All my life I’ve been extremely aware of body language and what I’ve always called the “energy” of the people around me. I’ve frequently had the experience of picking up the hidden emotions of others and taking on responsibility for them, a result of ineffective boundaries. When I was trained in emotional intelligence I cleaned up my poor boundaries and many other destructive habits. I also began to openly and unapologetically trust myself after a lifetime of cognitive dissonance caused by the difference between words and nonverbal cues from others.
Now, at last, I have real world validation for the way I can sometimes “read” others. It’s not magic, and I’m not a freak, a fantasist or crazy. Science now recognizes the universality of human facial expressions for basic emotions (fear, surprise, contempt, happiness, sadness, disgust, shame), and technology allows us to slow down video footage and capture microexpressions, which occur in much less than a second, as we speak and interact with others.
Our words can lie, but Dr. Ekman’s work reveals our bodies give away our emotional experience in all kinds of ways of which we’re not even conscious. The way we hold our hands, a slight shoulder shrug, the way we move our heads, how we direct our gaze and small, fleeting expressions passing across our faces with the help of 42 complex muscles can contradict our words.
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash
We know some people have a great deal of difficulty reading and interpreting body language and subtle cues, while others are skilled at it. Paul Ekman’s work and research makes it possible for anyone to consciously learn how to detect emotional deception. Every episode of Lie To Me incorporates not only a story line told by actors, but also footage from real people — politicians, leaders and other famous and infamous folks — displaying exactly the same facial expression or body movement. It’s amazing.
Some people are difficult to read. I’ve worked hard to develop a stone face and have often been told I’m opaque. My oldest son is extremely provocative, and my expressionless countenance stood me in good stead when he was a teenager and woke me in the middle of the night to tell me he was going to ski naked at midnight with a girl in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. Any show of outrage or upset only egged him on, so I learned to control myself. I’ve also had some exposure to narcissists and other Cluster B people, who feed on emotional energy, and I know the best way to deal with them is to become a grey rock, that is to be so completely flat, uninteresting and uninterested that they move on, a technique far more effective than trying to get rid of them directly. Yet even though I may be harder to read than average, I know my body language gives me away every time, or would to a trained observer.
(Fortunately, my teenage sons were not trained observers. Let us be thankful for small mercies.)
Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash
Sedating substances and Botox injections can interfere with or blunt muscle movement and smooth out microexpressions, but eventually we all give our truth and lies away. We can’t help it. Microexpressions and body language are often totally unconscious on our part.
I’ve been told I have an intense gaze that can make others feel uncomfortable. I suspect this is a function of the focus and presence necessary to evaluate how the people around me present themselves as I compare what they say with what their expressions and bodies tell me. If I feel confused or receive a mixed message, I always go with body language. Words lie too easily and too frequently. We lie to ourselves and we lie to each other. When I experience cognitive dissonance as I observe and interact with others, now I no longer tell myself I’m making things up. Even more importantly, I don’t allow other people to make me feel bad and wrong. Nobody likes to have their cover blown, and someone with things to hide is naturally not going to appreciate feeling exposed. Rage, denial, projection, gaslighting and other abusive behavior can all be effective distractions from the truth.
A lie comes with a cost. The truth may come with a cost as well. We navigate our lives between the two, making the best choices we can. I have no desire whatsoever to uncover the secrets and lies of others, but I am interested in being able to evaluate if there are secrets and lies. I don’t believe we owe others 100% of our emotional truth, but every healthy relationship and connection requires some level of trust, and I don’t want to be with people I can’t trust. I think of mixed messages as a red flag.
It’s amazing to learn, after all these years of mysteriously and often uncomfortably picking up more information from others than I ever wanted to know, that inconsistency is a red flag. Words that are incongruent with facial expressions and body language are untrustworthy. My ability to recognize concealed emotions is not hateful or crazy.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
Frequently we don’t seek to deceive others as much as we wish to deceive ourselves. The lies we tell ourselves are perhaps the most powerful of all, and we protect those kind of lies the most ferociously.
It’s important to understand recognizing the presence of a lie does not mean we know the substance of the lie or why it’s being told. As a writer, I find that why infinitely interesting in its possibilities. What kinds of things do we conceal? What motivates us to do so? What are the consequences of our various lies, great and small, to ourselves and to others? How do our bodies unconsciously communicate our emotional deception? If we spot emotional deception in someone we’re close to, what do we do with that information? What kinds of lies are terminal in relationships, and what kinds survivable? How do we forgive ourselves and others for emotional deception?
The looming presence of social media in our culture means many of our daily interactions, perhaps most, are not face to face, which greatly diminishes the complexity and depth of human communication and makes emotional deception easy. Body language is invisible. Tone, pitch and other verbal clues and idiosyncrasies are unheard. We use sanitized little emojis to represent our meaning, or at least to represent what we want others to believe our meaning is.
Paul Ekman has written several books I’m looking forward to exploring, and one can take online classes and learn more. I intend to learn a lot more.