Mindless obedience. The words conjure up negative images and feelings for me. I have nothing but disdain for the whole idea of thoughtlessly following orders, and the word ‘obey’ itself feels archaic and just plain wrong. Once upon a time, that wasn’t true, especially for women, who made obedience part of their wedding vows. And I do not mean to suggest that obedience was something unknown to men, because that’s absolutely not true. I merely mean to point out that obedience was intimate for women.
Obedience is the recognition of authority. Our society used to be structured in ways that emphasized the many authorities to whom people had to submit, either by choice or by force. The various churches and denominations of Christianity used to play a huge role in our culture, and in many places still do, but the church has nowhere near the influence it once had. Teachers in schools once had the authority to compel obedience. Obviously the police and military could compel obedience, and still can. In families, parents were expected to demand obedience from children, and children were expected to comply. And fathers were the head of the family, to whom everyone was expected to defer, ultimately.
It’s hard to actually envision that world, from 2016, in a Western nation. Christian churches that claim absolutely authority are met with accusations of homophobia, racism, sexism, whatever –ism you like. The authority of the church has been watered down to such a point, the church is effectively a social network, and not much else. Teachers and schools have pretty much no authority to demand anything from any child and their only recourse to punish behavior they don’t like is to expel or suspend the child from school, which from the child’s point of view looks a whole lot more like freedom than punishment. The police and military can indeed compel obedience, but people are shockingly willing to challenge both groups, often with fatal results.
What shattered remnants of families remain seem utterly uninterested in being places where children practice obedience, adults practice responsibility and modeling good behaviors while punishing bad ones, and everyone emerges disciplined, productive and happy. Women do not accept the authority of men, children do not accept the authority of parents and I believe we are all the worse off for it.
Last night, I sat and watched the children’s Krav Maga class. Two of my children are in this class. Tom is 10, and Jane is 7. I think the oldest girl is 11 and the youngest is 5, with a range of ages in between. Ian, the instructor, is a massive monster of a man. He’s 6’3 and covered in tattoos and has a shaved head and just looks, in every way, like a scary, bad person. By all rights, the children should be terrified of him.
They adore him.
And the shocking thing to watch is that the kids love him because he beats the hell out of them and demands obedience. Ian puts the kids through drills, and if they fail to do the drill exactly the way he wants them to, he walks around and smacks them with a leather covered paddle. Ian demands not just obedience from the kids, but mindless obedience. Do it because I said so. If you don’t, I’ll smack you.
And the kids do it.
And love it.
There is no fear. There is intense pride.
I was sitting with Barb, another mom, and we both commented on the astonishing speed with which the children learned. If teachers could do the things Ian does, my god our country would be at the top of education charts. The kids absolutely love the physicality of the class. Ian will give them pads and tell the kids to throw the pads down forcefully on the floor. Don’t place them down gently. Chuck it down! Now jump on it! Beat the heck out of it! When you hear the whistle jump up! Now practice hitting the drill pad another child is holding.
Don’t hurt the other person!
I would bet almost every parent would say the kids can’t do it. They can’t go from smashing and beating and slamming pads around to hitting another child without hurting them.
They all did.
And the two sides of the coin came together for me.
When Ian drills the kids in mindless obedience, he is also drilling them in mindfulness of others. They go together, which is why they work, and if you try to do one without the other, you’ll end up abusing either your authority or you’ll get abused. The Church can only have authority and demand obedience over their flocks if they are mindful towards the flock: they must give them something profound in return for their obedience. Schools and teachers can only exercise authority if they are mindful of students – teachers have to give student’s something meaningful in return for the student’s obedience. Families can only demand obedience if they give each other something in return for that. And husbands can only compel their wives to obey if they provide something profound to their obedient wives.
In many ways, I think we have our approach to life and happiness exactly backwards: the problem is not that authority is abused, it’s that once you take away the mindfulness that authority and obedience compels, you are left with the inevitability of abuse and unhappiness.
We have this idea that freedom means being free from authority – never being subjected to constraints, but I’m beginning to see that idea is very flawed and very contrary to human nature. Freedom should mean the freedom to choose our constraints. I should be free to choose what I wish to obey, but choosing to obey nothing or no one means nothing and no one really cares what happens to me. The church doesn’t care. Salvation was the reward for obedience, but now most churches will promise salvation yet demand almost nothing in return, which means salvation effectively means nothing, because it cost nothing. A diploma or credential was the reward for obedience at school, but now everyone gets the diploma, making it worthless. What reason do teachers, or students, have to care?
The biggest loss of meaning has occurred in families and marriages. Why should children obey parents when parents can, and often do, destroy their children’s happiness on a whim? Why should wives obey husbands when the whole applecart can be overturned at any time, for any reason, by either partner (although it’s more frequently the wife who upends the cart)? Why invest your heart and humility so fully in any of these things?
I asked my children how they feel when they do something wrong and Ian hits them in Krav class. Their first reaction is to break out in huge smiles. They love this class! My youngest uses words like ‘strong’ and ‘smart’ and ‘killer’ to describe how her failures and the subsequent punishments feel. Think about that: failing, and getting hit, doesn’t cripple her, or make her sad or angry. It makes her determined to do better. It makes her proud that she got punished and it didn’t hurt that much and now she’s stronger. My son is proud that he antagonized Ian and got smacked with a pad and has a very small bruise. He would like to test his limits much further than Ian will allow.
I would never have guessed that not just my children, but every child in the class would love being challenged, being shot down, being punished and then challenged again. But they do. They are determined to obey Ian mindlessly. Hit the pads! Jump up when you hear the whistle! Spin around in a circle! No, you did that wrong! Go do handstand pushups against the wall! Just do it! Do it now!
Barb and I sat and watched the kids and marveled at the pure, unadulterated joy Ian brings out in them. The class is chaos, with children running and screaming and hitting and jumping and kicking, and yet not one of them hurt another child. Now, there have been classes where kids have gotten hurt, but this is the result of accidents. Accidents do happen, but the kids don’t hurt each other deliberately. We are asked to think that because Ian hurts the kids deliberately, as a punishment for doing the drill wrong, the kids should turn around and mete out the exact same behaviour to the other kids. The power is supposed to flow down the hierarchy, right.
In obedience, we learn discipline. In obedience, we learn to be careful. In obedience we learn to pay attention. In obedience, we learn to be fully human, and we learn that everyone around us is human, too.
It’s rather remarkable.
If I could do my wedding vows again today, I would include the word obey. In lived experience, I do obey. I honestly feel queasy writing the word out, even now. But the reality is that love isn’t diminished by authority or obedience. Quite the opposite.
Those things are the very foundation of love.
And, they’re how you pass a five hour Krav Maga exam.
Accept the authority of your instructor to discipline you. And learn to obey.
And if you can’t do that, duck!
Lots of love,