One of the most provocative theories about the inner life comes from the French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose writings on the development of the self are a foundation for questioning unearned authority. Foucault explains the paradox of how fear-inducing authorities taught us how to understand ourselves through a fascinating observation: that humans took a leap forward in defining ourselves through the repetition of confessing our sins to a person to whom we ascribed the very power of God: the priest. Thus we reinforced the notions that what is most important about ourselves is a bunch of things we are ashamed of (or that we have been told we should be ashamed of), that to feel ashamed is a “sacrament” and therefore good for us, and that there is a higher power who is more interested in our mistakes than our beauty.
As Leonard Cohen says, everything contains “cracks” for the light to get through, so it’s worth noting that healthy confession (in conversation with an emotionally mature, non-shaming confessor) is indeed good for the soul. Keeping guilt and fear bottled up inside is no good for any of us. There is healing in facing our inner darkness and making amends—and what you think about higher powers depends on how you’re looking at them (compare the vision of Alcoholics Anonymous with that espoused by Al Qaeda, for instance).
But many people experience confession merely as a mental checklist or a superficial game, a kind of spiritual tallying we employ to feel better about ourselves, or because it fits the culture we’re trying to be accepted by. Healthy confession includes the liberation of knowing you’re not alone, the opportunity to learn from your mistakes, and the forging of new agreements so you can walk a little taller next time. But unhealthy models of confession, Foucault contends, have created the self as a little shame receptacle, unable to take responsibility for its actions, needing a magician in the sky to pronounce us clean. The lenses through which we identify “sin” or ‘“darkness” derive from the whims of the authorities despite the fact that this means giving away what Simone Weil called our greatest power: the power to say “I.”
Given the power we cede to religious and other authorities as our surrogate decision-makers, many of us have inherited shame-filled notions about ourselves, and we have a lot of unlearning to do about when to surrender power and when to take it. Growing up amidst the violence and often repressive religious culture of the north of Ireland/Northern Ireland, confession, for me, was first equated with naming my darkness rather than my light, my shadow rather than my gold. So I still tend to over-read the darkness and curse it rather than noticing the million candles already lit. Some say we become what we pay attention to; for John O’Donohue, “your vision is your home.” It’s no wonder, then, that when my vision was restricted by the culture of confessing only the darkness, darkness was all I could see. It’s no wonder that I thought I was ugly and greeted the concept of innocence with incredulity rather than wonder, a sign of weakness rather than understanding innocence as a sign of the true immensity of what it is to be human. As both beginning and destiny.
We all have the experience of an authority figure or institution that we’ve been afraid of. For some of us, it’s one of our parents, whose love for us sometimes became confused and twisted in harsh discipline, or in some cases, whose brokenness had not been tended to, and who acted out their inner darkness on us. For some it is a religious culture which bound us up in ropes, tightly knotted at one end, but ensuring just enough freedom of movement to flagellate ourselves with the other—never good enough, one step from hell, sin and Satan everywhere all the time, even today. For some it is fear that the authorities will break their promises, that we will find ourselves in danger through no fault of our own, but we won’t be protected. Some recoil from the very image or idea of God. And that’s okay—knowing these things allows you to begin to be gentle with yourself. You perhaps live in a society that has taught itself to repeat lies about everything, highlighting horror and devaluing beauty, making the real unreal and the unreal real. You perhaps grew up in a culture where well-meaning people were still transmitting the dehumanizing legacy of old and broken ideas about original sin and the depravity of children. You perhaps were born into a world full of people trying to get it right, but whose imperfect conclusions gave you a gift: the need to figure things out for yourself. So you get the chance to co-create the next stage of human evolution, rather than parroting the mistakes of the past.
What co-creation looks like, of course, is up to you. It can be no other way. Fear of external authorities can only be transcended by the human being taking authority for herself. Imagination, in the end, may be the only thing that cannot be held prisoner except with the prisoner’s consent. The bittersweet opportunity for you, for me, for everyone we know, is to recognize we are our own jailers. And from your jail, where you shackle yourself to a vision of the world that ascribes power only to invisible spiritual forces that can create wars, poverty, political oppression, and the DMV, the amazing gift is that no one holds the key to your prison but you. You can take steps to free yourself by nurturing the authoritative voice within. Consider this:
If you lack mercy for yourself, be more merciful to others. Do it for long enough and you will start to forgive yourself.
If you are a harsh critic, consider offering yourself feedback by first identifying what you think you did well and then identifying one suggestion for a better way to do it next time—without even mentioning what you think you did badly.
If your community tends to curse the darkness before lighting candles, consider that you might be the one who can buy the candles.
If you have given power over your own life to external authorities, try to retrace the journey that led you there and take back one piece of power at a time.
And if you need help, start to ask for it.
Some parts of our culture, especially the political parts, teach us that asking for help is a sign of weakness. And so we find ourselves in a further bind; needing help becomes another source of fear. We fear we will look incapable or be shamed. In fact, so much violence proceeds from a single source of someone needing help, but feeling unable to ask for it. (The three largest genocides of the twentieth century proceed from the inner brokenness of just three individuals: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot. Imagine a world in which any of them had learned to ask for help to discern what he really needed.)
When I was not long out of college, I needed to borrow money from my dad. I borrowed £1,000—about $1,600 at the time—and made an agreement that I would pay it back on a certain date. But I couldn’t pay it back, and as the day approached, I was weighed down by the fear of telling Dad, as well as the pressure of the story I was telling myself about my financial circumstances. I did not try to do anything about my situation, which is a typical response to the fear trigger—the prehistoric sabre toothed tiger projected by our reptile brains is coming at us, so we freeze and squeeze our eyes tight in the adorably futile hope that not being able to see will somehow make us invisible.
I went over to see Dad on a Saturday morning. He was expecting a repayment. I was expecting D-Day. We sat at opposite ends of the kitchen table as I told him that not only could I not pay him back today, but that I needed to borrow more money.
Two remarkable things happened that morning. The first was that as my dad told me, tears welling, he did not have any more money in the bank to lend, I took another step toward adulthood. Toward taking authority for myself. He was no longer the invincible god whom I relied upon (and blamed) for everything, but a man, beautiful and vulnerable, just like me. The second was that in the very same moment he embodied the kind of grace, generosity, and tenderness that only authentic authority figures can. After leaving the room for a few minutes to think about what should be done—while I stewed in anxiety in the kitchen—he returned with a smile. A few months prior I had loaned him my bicycle, which I did not like nor use, and which he himself had given me in the first place. It was worth about £80. My dad said he really didn’t have any more money he could loan at the time, but he really liked my bike, and if it would be okay with me, he wanted to purchase it. He said he thought it was worth about £1,000, and if that price were acceptable to me, we could just call it even. So we did, an £80 bike and fear going for £1000 and love. It was an enormous gift, a healing moment, which not only took away my anxiety, but saved us both from our shame. Our relationship has never been the same since.
Because shaming, scapegoating, and aggression have become go-to modes of cultural exchange, I think we should declare help-askers the heroes of our time. The very request for help should be an occasion for rejoicing, for another human being is setting themselves free from the death-dealing oppression that says we are alone and must fend for ourselves. This is the gift of innocence battling with fear of the authorities. For when external authorities seem to threaten, the trick would then be to see this as an opportunity for liberating inner work.
Think about the times that you have experienced debilitating fear.
I’m willing to bet that the thing that you thought was going to happen probably didn’t. Or if it did, it wasn’t nearly as bad as you expected. Or if it was, that you can at least claim today you are a survivor. The most likely truth is that you were not primarily afraid of the thing itself, but of your ability to cope with the thing if it happened.
Another way of putting this would be to say that you were not so much afraid of the threat, but of yourself. The gift of fearing the authorities is the opportunity to deepen your authority within yourself. And there’s a special bonus prize: sometimes the authorities end up healed too.
There are kind authority figures in the world: ministers who lay down their lives to lead nonviolent movements for social transformation, flight attendants who return lost iPhones, counselors who extend the session by an hour when clients are in distress, community group leaders who stay behind to sweep the floor, teachers who forgive instead of punish students’ wrongdoing, nurses who nurture, car mechanics who refer customers to a competitor who would do the job cheaper, prison guards who let visiting hours last as long as they need to, judges who refuse to uphold unjust laws, the bishop in Les Miserables who buys a man’s freedom with candlesticks, and my dad who paid much more than a bike was worth in order to buy me back my dignity. We all get to experience kind authority, perhaps more often than we notice. More importantly, we may not notice how often we get to exercise authority in a day. We cannot even get out of bed without authority over our own bodies, and as the day continues, every act we make is an act of authority. In this sense, there is no difference between you and the President. You both have authority over a realm. You both get to choose how to use it. Much has been given to each of us; the realm of human life, “a little lower than the angels,” is a significant realm indeed. Some of us have become inhibited from taking authority; some of us struggle to use the authority we have without lording it over others. So we hide or bully; most of us probably do a bit of both. And for both, the path to healing begins in the same place. The invitation is to begin again, and begin again, and begin again, every day, maybe even every hour. Another word for this is innocence—which doesn’t mean never having failed, but something more like the humble authority of self-knowledge, lived through amends for the past, and the invitation to take one step forward at a time, into the unknown, into wonder. The best, most whole authorities are the ones who embody power within the range that is appropriate to their responsibility, and who commit to using such power only for the common good. They love their neighbors as themselves. This requires innocence, or a “beginner’s mind”, or whatever term most invites you into the spacious place in which power is exercised in this manner. We humans know this when we see it, because the very same mechanisms that operate in governments and multinational corporations already exist every time an individual human being makes a decision about anything.
All authority figures are relying on your projections, wounds, and gifts for their power. There is a reason great spiritual texts assure us we need not be afraid of those who can, as they say, “kill the body.” That teaching is rooted in the idea that there is a human core that cannot be touched by anyone except the soul that contains it. You can access this through practices as simple as sitting still and thinking for ten minutes. All you need is a body and a place to sit. There are fathomless gifts and mysteries waiting for you to discover them. They constitute the real you, and they will grant you entrance to ever-deepening levels of authority over your own life. And when you befriend the authority within, external authorities will begin to settle into their rightful place—sometimes inconveniences, sometimes challenges, sometimes kindnesses, and always gifts. Because every instance in which you confront an external authority will become an opportunity for you to deepen your own sense of inner power. To experience the gift of self-knowledge, and to settle into the comfort and security of your own innocence. It is there, just waiting for you to ask it to help you notice it.