I seem to recall always questioning “the way things are.” Hearing an uncle, or was it my grandfather, explain reality to me as if it were carved in stone, immediately prompted a question. The problem was their explanation of reality didn’t match my experience of the world. And so, because I must have had some innate courage to ask questions of confident-sounding adults, or because I grew up the single child of a single mother who did the same in a world heavy with patriarchal explanations of “the way things are,” I found myself consistently challenging authority.
I questioned the rules at school, especially the arbitrary ones. I questioned the bureaucracies I worked within, especially and whenever I heard “because that’s the way we’ve always done things.” I wrote opinion-editorials for the newspaper, challenging our acceptance of the massive disparity in access to resources or in rates of imprisonment, even when such writing threatened my own access to resources or inclusion in the circle of people considered politically savvy.
I challenged authority again and again, not because I had an image of myself as a radical and not because I had any intention of becoming a martyr figure in the spirit of Joan of Arc. I challenged authority at every turn since I can remember because I could never live through someone else’s prism of how things are. And I couldn’t imagine anyone else having to live that way either.
It took a long time to see just how many of my beliefs came from somewhere else. We’ve all been raised in a culture with deep grooves defining how things are and who we can be inside that context. The problem is that’s a tight box. Those deep groves felt like heavy chains keeping me locked away in someone else’s idea of life. And it ain’t working for me or anyone, not for women or men, not for people of color or Caucasians. No one wins in a system of embedded belief, which dictates “the way things are.”
The truth is what we don’t know is immeasurably larger than what we do know. Only 4% of the universe is even visible to us, while 96% if the universe is dark matter, hidden from the naked eye. And while we receive 40 million bits of information through our complex nervous system every second, we can only be conscious of about 40 of those bits. The rest of it goes into our subconscious, into the darkness we cannot see.
Given this enormous disparity between what any one of us can know, and what is yet still a mystery, how can anyone claim to know reality and “the way things are” with any certainty? Those trying to claim it, or define it absolutely, are just wrestling with the very vexing and historically destructive problem of “control.”
When I hear the same stories explaining reality through the lens of “national security interests,” “global competitiveness” or “military preparedness,” it doesn’t match up with the reality of my experience of myself and of others. It sounds instead like an old story that’s been told over and over again, with mind numbing consistency, until such reality became an unchallenged authority.
So how do we challenge this “authority”?
–It may be as simple as reminding anyone speaking from this “authority” that reality is so much bigger than any of us will ever know. And in truth, there is no such thing as “the way things are.”
–It may involve a commitment above all else to the mystery, even when we want desperately to hold onto something solid.
–It may require that we honor the complexity of the human condition and our propensity to err frequently, and to hold that sacred above all else, even above our desire to win, to be right, or to tell someone we love who is desperate for answers that “yes, this is how it is.”
–Perhaps the antidote to authority’s increasingly tyrannical explanation for “how things are” might simply be a promise to ourselves to choose vulnerability over certainty. A promise to live more fearlessly with ambiguity. A promise to respond with curiosity and openness to everything, rather than to accept anyone else’s version of “the way things are.” And a promise to remember that in challenging authority we are simply expressing our universal desire for freedom.
To challenge authority is simply to challenge assumptions, our own and those of the world around us. It’s one of the most essential creative habits of mind, because to open our doors of perception, to expand our consciousness and access a more creative realm, we must unhinge the blinders that keep us from seeing more.