The day after my daughter was born an administrator came into my hospital room and asked what name to put on the Hospital Report of Birth. I gave them the name my husband and I had decided upon, and marveled that I was able to do so without filing for a permit or application of any kind.
It was only later that it struck me how pitiful my reaction was.
Truth is, we have been trained all our lives to cede our power to people who are recognized as experts or who are in positions of authority. We have been taught that we need permission to live our lives..
How do these experts get their authority? In most cases it is due to their education, training or experience – and I am grateful for it. I want a certified engineer to verify the safety of a bridge rather than my neighbor across the street. I will hire an experienced tree service company to remove the rotten oak in my backyard over the teenager who mows lawns. Having experts to take care of things in my life is a good thing.
Except when it’s not.
As a child raised Catholic in a small midwestern town, I was taught to respect authority in all its forms – and to not go outside the lines without permission. While that can be good general advice, problems arise when we automatically seek answers outside of ourselves without ever touching base with our own knowledge, experience and values. Over the years I have made four observations:
1) Having a lot of letters after their name does not mean that another person is better able to resolve a problem than you.
2) People who are elected to office do not always believe the public well-being is a priority.
3) A disturbing number of religious leaders use their positions to dictate how to make people smaller and “less-than” rather than encourage their spiritual development.
4) Leaders of affinity groups often demand across-the-board, unquestioning adherence to their positions.
These observations might seem a no-brainer until you start paying attention to what’s going on in this country. The NRA is telling responsible gun owners that they must support unrestricted sales of tactical military weapons to the average citizen. Ministers instruct their congregations that eternal salvation depends on punishing entire groups of people rather than being decent human beings. Politicians – I don’t even want to go there. Suffice to say that many holders of public office are focused on power, influence and personal gain. A corollary is that our elected officials are more likely to be interested in fundraising than budgeting, medical, tax or military matters.
These are the people who we depend on to tell us how to live our lives.
Where did learn we should look to authorities for permission on what to believe and how to behave? For me, it was pretty much my entire life experience. Most of our school years are wasted in doing the equivalent of low level clerk work with rewards for those who are obedient and docile. A successful career often hinges on being differential to superiors while aping their opinions, their behaviors and their appearance. The media portrays reality as threatening and dangerous. Public figures increasingly use dehumanizing adjectives to describe anyone in disagreement with their policies. It’s no wonder that so many of us have become “sheeple.”
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We can refuse to listen. Stop watching and reading the news. Scan the headlines so that you know what’s going on, but anything more than that is letting other people put their agendas and opinions in your head.
We can refuse to follow. Guard against using words that broadly categorize people as “other” or “less than.” Seek out and interact with people who are different from you – and form your opinions from your own experience.
We can refuse to sit on the sidelines. Turn off the television and engage in an activity – a game with your kids, real conversation with your partner or your neighbor, a hobby in which you create something – that requires you to use your mind. Participate in your own life. Determine the type of life you will live.
We deserve better than the life we are being served. But we need to stop asking permission before we change it.