On Authority

I have always known (or at least, my brother has always told me) that I’m a bit of a dork. Growing up, I never quite felt like I fit in with people my own age. With babies and old folks, I was golden. But from the ages of, say, 8 to 25 (dare I admit it lasted that long?), I felt a general sense of unease with my peers. It’s a good thing I’m not the least bit shy and I have a pretty healthy sense of my own worth, because if I’d been a timid, insecure little thing, I imagine that unease would have made for a miserable childhood.

As it was, I had a very happy childhood: I had a loving family and lots of close friends who were kind, funny, smart – all sorts of good things. When I did encounter classmates who saw through to my unease with the middle school sense of humor or the teenage sense of fun and gave me a hard time about it, I was usually able to stand up to them.

My adolescent social standing, though, was not helped by the fact that I was born with an innate distaste for anyone and anything “popular.” You know all those images of screaming, crazy-out-of-their-mind teenage girls waiting to greet the Beatles? And subsequent crowds of girls swooning over New Kids On The Block, Justin Bieber, etc? Umm… yeah… that wasn’t my thing. Not only did that obsessed-fan behavior kind of baffle me, but I had a knee-jerk reaction against anything that smacked of a fad. Torn jeans? Six-inch-high bangs? My response was almost desperate: “No! It’s a fad! Get awaaayyy from it!”

I also didn’t have the teenage rebellion thing going for me. When my classmates were sneaking out to go to parties or driving around with forbidden friends, I was… exactly where my parents thought I was. Behaving nicely.

I know – I probably sound very boring to you. (And yes, my brother would assure you that I was/am.) But I promise that I do indeed know how to have fun, if perhaps a tamer version of fun than you prefer. In high school my friends generally congregated at my house, playing volleyball in the summer, board games in the winter. In college my house was also the gathering place, full of friends and good food. It still is.

Reflecting on all of this afterward, in my late twenties or so, I couldn’t quite figure it out. Why did I have no rebellious impulse at all when it came to my parents, but a strong aversion to being influenced by my peers?

After a while, it came to me: It’s all down to authority.

Because really, I know how it feels to have that rebellious, “Don’t you tell me what to do!” attitude. I experience it frequently. I experience it when I feel like all the lovely ladies are obsessed over some new trend in fashion, when everybody’s talking up a new diet or exercise regimen, when all the mommies seem to be jumping on some new parenting method bandwagon, when my Facebook feed is alight with the latest “it” political cause. I get this stubborn urge to do just the opposite of whatever it is everybody is so excited about.

I know – it’s pretty ridiculous. You don’t have to tell me that it’s just as silly to dislike something because it’s popular as it is to like something because it’s popular. I know that. And I recognize that sometimes (many times?) I reject something that I might otherwise enjoy, just because everyone else seems to be enjoying it. Silly.

When it comes to rules handed down by institutions, however, I’m usually onboard. Parking signs, using your blinker every single time you turn, underage alcohol laws, college rules regarding who is allowed on which floor after which hour, Church precepts on sex or marriage or mass obligations… I’m fine. I have zero rebellious impulse when it comes to people/institutions I perceive as having authority over me. (That is not to say I never struggle with following their rules. I simply feel no urge to rebel against them.)

The lack of a rebellious impulse in that respect is part of my nature. It’s just how I’m built. But I also have a rationale for my obedience to authority.

Let me pause here and draw attention to that word for a moment: Obedience. We don’t seem to like it much these days, do we? I certainly don’t like its relatives – follow, conform, imitate – when they pertain to people in whom I do not recognize authority. We are each the protagonist of our own story, are we not? I am the central character in my own life. I determine how I view the stage; I decide the direction I take. So shouldn’t I also be the authority? Why should I be obedient to someone or something else?

Back to my rationale… As an example, let me sketch out my line of thinking insofar as it relates to the Church: Do I believe that God created the heavens and the earth and little ol’ me to boot? Yes. Do I believe that God’s son, Jesus Christ, came to earth to live among us and that he suffered a horrible, painful death to redeem humanity – including me – from sin? Yes. Do I believe that Christ established the Catholic Church and that it continues to hold the authority He gave it? Yes.

If I really believe those things, what choice do I have? What is more important to me – to view myself as the ultimate authority, or to submit to the authority of the Church? I choose the latter.

I recognize that to a lot of people – especially young people, and perhaps especially Americans – the idea of submitting oneself to the authority of a church is… shocking, maybe? Horrifying, even? Inconsistent with our society’s secular ideals and sense of personal independence?

Okay, then – call me a rebel. (If one can be both rebel and dork, that is.)

I would wager that very few people lead lives completely independent of outside influence. Few are genuinely self-determined, free spirits. Most people submit to something – perhaps to parental or institutional authority, perhaps to the advice given by experts in the sciences, perhaps to the trends handed down from celebrities. We may not think about it much, but we follow, we conform, we obey. It’s just a matter of to what.

Certainly, my personality (my “Don’t you tell me what to do, popular person!” personality) predisposes me to favor obedience to parents/church/state over peers/culture. But I still make choices. I think. I assess. I keep my eyes and mind open, aware that parents and institutions make mistakes. That sometimes they act unjustly. That evil exists and each one of us is vulnerable to it.

So I walk the line, I suppose. Perhaps it’s not a very neat philosophical ending. When I recognize authority in a person or an institution, I obey. I trust. I do not rebel, but I do watch. Trust and watch: I can do both.

When I do not recognize authority, however, I run. So if you ever want to get me to do something, for heaven’s sake, don’t tell me it’s popular.

5 thoughts on “On Authority

  1. I really enjoyed this post! My husband is very similar to you, I think, and he frequently gets really annoyed that I hate rules simply because they are rules. Traffic rules, crosswalks, etc just rub me the wrong way. Thankfully I don’t have a problem with obedience to the church. It’s THE source of order for me.
    I am with you on the popular things. If something is all the rage I do my best to avoid it. I hate feeling like a sheep. Not just with things, but people too. I was probably uncharitable more than a few times to “popular girls” in high school or college. Oops!

  2. Wow! Your description of your childhood/adolescence is exactly what mine was! I rebel against popular stuff too! Glad you published it 🙂

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