Respect for authority is not a popular idea in our world. Our own experience quite often trumps anything we’re read. It is natural for us to distrust the authority of distant sources, sources that may well be most interested in protecting and projecting their power.
I’m thinking of this now because of Donald Trump’s recent reply to the question of whom he consulted. His first response was that he consulted mostly himself and his pretty big brain. This self-reliance appeals to his followers who suspect an authority that is often used to ridicule others and to sustain their own power base.
But if authority is to come mainly from ourselves or from our experience, even Trump might concede that the biggest of our brains will run into walls higher than his envisioned Mexican one, walls that only outside authority will allow us to transcend.
I wonder: Whom do we — or since I am writing this out of my own medium-sized brain — whom do I respect enough to yield authority to?
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The first person who comes to mind is my plumber/electrician who knows my Victorian very well. My mechanic, too, is familiar with my old cars. And my roofer. All three are men of character: honest and modest. They advise me as to what is needed. In the fields of their expertise, I give them deference.
In other areas, my ideas are influenced by friends: education by teacher friends. My own experience as a teacher is valuable, but I understand its limitations. I’m influenced by thoughtful articles written by strangers. Others might be more knowledgeable. I yield them authority.
Very early on, as an aspiring writer, I decided that certain poets and writers were the source of all knowledge. Sometimes I was a bit star-struck. Hemingway, for example, weighed heavily on me and many other young males. We edited our prose till it was sometimes reduced to grunts — manly grunts. I forgave Dostoyevsky’s chauvinism because I loved Dostoyevsky. I even poo-pooed T.S. Eliot’s and e.e. cummings’ anti-Semitism. I forgave F. Scott Fitzgerald’s casual racism as just a product of his times.
I yielded too much authority to certain authors. I had to learn to love and yet withhold, to read the Bible of literature critically—to exult in certain passages and resist and reject others.
I was fortunate to find a way to do that and still hold on to a sense of wonder at how profound and wonderful so many poets are. My awe comes from my vague understanding of the marvelous beyond my ken, my deference to the authority of a poet’s greater understanding and more profound feeling.
Spiritually, I decided decades ago that I would not yield wholly to the authority of the church, the Catholic Church, that is. I became a Unitarian-Universalist, a church that almost demands that an individual take complete spiritual responsibility for oneself. Ironically, though, as I grow older I find that I listen to others much more. My fellow U.U.s, priests, ministers, Paul Prather, Thomas Merton, my friend Jaqui, Pope Francis. I yield spiritual authority to all sorts of people. I have become a kind of Catholic U.U., more and more humble in my insights, more and more ready to concede that others might have a fuller spiritual understanding.
It is the willingness to yield authority that I am talking about — the modesty that comes with the understanding that our understanding is limited — that others might know more of what they are talking about in certain areas. If we are not willing to trust — our plumbers, our friends, our poets and our leaders — what world will we be left with?
Our leaders. I left that for last. My trusted mechanic would never suggest work my car didn’t need. He knows my budget. He would never let me drive an unsafe car. We all know politicians whom we couldn’t say the same about. We have retreated to a cynicism that we can easily justify.
But it is a cynicism that prevents us exploring what is possible. We need to exercise trust as a kind of reasoning faith, a faith that does not reject the bible of hope because of certain misused passages in Leviticus. I will not yield my reasoning ability to a blind trust. But cynicism is too easy, too self-protective. Too fearful. Too limiting.
We are not naïfs. Vietnam, Watergate, Iraq have taught us the dangers of allowing our leaders too much leeway. We have learned to distrust. We needed to learn that distrust.
But can we relearn how to trust?
A wall tall enough to keep out keeps us in, too. If we don’t find a way to regain respect for justified authority, we might end up trapped behind the narrow walls of our own experience.
Joe Anthony is a Lexington writer, whose latest novel, “Wanted: Good Family,” deals with race in the 1940s Bluegrass.