I was once married to a man who believed a father should rule his family with unbending authority, the role of authority is to provide security and safety, and the authority figure (the father) should be given respect, regardless of what he says or does. In contrast, I was raised in a permissive family environment, where rules were flexible, authority was questioned, respect was earned, and authority was acknowledged rather than imposed. He and I were at two opposite ends of a spectrum, and it didn’t take long for the conflict to spread into other areas of our marriage.
Authority comes in many forms: fathers, mothers, police, military, government leaders, doctors, teachers, and religious leaders. It can be benevolent or harsh. Having authority implies having knowledge, expertise, or power that others don’t have. “He’s the leading authority on the subject.”
Terms for a person in authority include in power, in command, in control, and in charge. If we have authority, we have influence, clout, license, prerogative, and dominance. And if we are authorities, we are experts, specialists, and officials (government, police, medical, and so on).
Most of us are trained to listen to and obey those in authority, to depend on them for advice, security, and safety. We are taught to distrust our own knowledge or power—our own authority—in favor of others’. And we are taught to believe that society functions best when ordered in a top-down fashion.
What interests me is the very idea of authority, how we develop our belief systems about it, and the varying levels to which we depend upon it for guidance. Authority, I have found, can be a touchy subject.
This week’s journaling prompts help us examine the sources of our views, how these beliefs affect our lives, and determine where we are on authority-anarchy spectrum. Perhaps through writing about it, we’ll gain a better understanding of others as well as ourselves.
- Freewrite for ten minutes about authority. What emotions, images, and memories emerge?
- What do you believe? And what number would you assign to yourself on a spectrum where a 1 means authority is not important in your life and a 5 means it is highly important? Write about the factors that influence this self-assessment.
- What did your family of origin teach you about authority?
- Since you became an adult, have you changed your attitudes about authority in any way? If so, who are the persons or events that most influenced this change? How or why did the change occur? If you haven’t changed your attitudes about authority, write about what persons and/or events have confirmed your original beliefs.
- Have you experienced conflict with others around your attitudes and beliefs about authority? What happened? Did either of you end up changing your opinion? Have either of you changed your opinion since then? What kinds of internal conflicts about authority have you had, and what triggered these conflicts?
- Make a list of people and organizations you recognize as authorities in your life right now. Which authorities are imposed and which are acknowledged voluntarily? What is the difference between the two? Then, make a list of people and organizations that recognize you as an authority. Who/what are they, and what kind of authority do you have?
- Would you consider yourself more dependent on others’ authority or on yourself for direction and guidance in life? What does it mean to have “personal authority”?
I’d love to hear from you: what additional questions or thoughts do you have on this topic?