Obedience is such a weird word

Obedience is such a weird word. In some ways, the synonyms have less baggage...like compliance or amenability.

As a word, I think obedience's biggest problem is that it seems the opposite of freedom, but the true antonyms are disobedience and rebellion.  In the US we grew up in a country founded on a rebellion so we have admiration for it. Contrast that with disgust we feel at the kids who throw raving fits in a store as their parents try to supplicate them. There is a lot to it.

We've seen the word "obedience" abused. Parents still trying to wield power over grown kids without respecting their personhood. Abusive husbands. (It wasn't too long since love, honor and obey were part of a woman's marriage vows.)  A teacher who is personally insulted if a child doesn't follow every instruction.

Obedience is giving over your will to someone else--which as we know, is no small thing. And yet, we obey things all the time. Even thieves get up and brush their teeth in the morning. (I'm assuming.) There are all sorts of rules and instructions we follow every day.  They provide context and structure for people to live together.

I read a letter by Annie Sullivan to a friend about working with Helen Keller. She said that she would have to get the girl to obey her before she could teach her anything. (Up to that point, Helen--who was brilliant and trapped in a world without sight or hearing--ran wild asserting her will upon the family who pitied her.)

It occurs to me that obedience can either be the result of a war of wills or a submission because of trust.  In any case, obedience is rarely successful with force.  Oh for sure, you might get a show of obedience, but the heart won't be engaged.  This engendering of trust is necessary for people to adapt their will to another person's or to follow a prescribed program.

In many ways, trust provides rest. We have so many things we are responsible for every day that to let someone take the lead can give us breathing room.  This can be key in times of high stress. Being able to follow a path or a person when we are unsure can be an asset as we navigate life.

But to be certain, we have a choice. If a person or program turns out not to be trustworthy, we can quickly grab the steering wheel back--even when doing so requires high stakes. We see this in the bravery of people who defy oppressive governments, those who oust dictatorial leaders and those who pack up and leave crappy jobs.

Maybe that is part of the reason we admire rebellion with cause.  We know it has a personal cost. But obedience has its place too. We just have to be sure that we are obeying something good.
© Random Cathy
Maira Gall