The size of authority

Some years ago, I accompanied the Elder, as we called the oldest monk of the Order, to a university where the rector used to invite him to give lectures. There would be a symposium on social transformations. In some metropolises there were agitated popular demonstrations. The university, as a generator and catalyst of critical thought, needed to understand the point of view and motives of all those involved. Union leaders and businessmen were invited; magistrates and parliamentarians; policemen, students and teachers; artists, psychologists and philosophers. In short, all those who, at least in theory, could collaborate for a better understanding and advance in social relations. Each one would be offered the same amount of time to present their reasons. Within their respective specialties and experiences, they would talk about what changes should take place so that society could advance towards the desired goals. That day, the Elder said he wasn’t feeling very well and asked me to replace him. I told him that I had not prepared myself. He smiled and suggested: “Follow your heart”. He spun on his heels and went to sit in the auditorium.

I only asked the rector to let me speak last. Seated on the stage with the other speakers, I tried to pay attention to what everyone was saying, while thinking about how I would approach the subject when my turn came. I noticed that the speakers, with some recurrence, easily pointed out administrative errors, both past and present, always attributing the responsibility to third parties. The solutions pointed out were generic and diffuse, dependent on economic or political circumstances with complex and variable resolutions. I confess that I started to find all the lectures sterile, vague and lacking the necessary consistency to promote effective changes. The speeches proposed solutions of little practicality, without the boldness to risk new ideas and, the most serious, no background that showed a sincere personal commitment. The proposals seemed innocuous to me because they were dependent on aspects and possibilities beyond the common individual, as if waiting for the emergence of a collective and improbable phenomenon. For some time, the discourse of transferring responsibility had tired me, as did the insistence on trying to force me to follow a way of thinking that was not mine. I was also bored by the repeated rhetoric for orthodox and supposedly infallible solutions, in which we should follow some chosen ones to get out of the crisis. At a certain moment, one of the speakers, following this predominant line of reasoning, said that there was an authority vacuum in the world; leaders were no longer being manufactured as in the past. At that moment I understood what subject I should talk about.

Not by chance, I would be speaking next. I began my talk against the others. I pointed randomly to several people in the auditorium and calmly said: “No authority is greater than you”.

The words generated a huge buzz in the auditorium, but also created discomfort for being antagonistic to the position of the other speakers. One of them wanted to say something. The rector warned that everyone had their turn to speak and no one was interrupted. I would have the same right. However, I allowed the interference with the following commentary: “Any theme only becomes polemic when passions overcome sensibility and balance. I do not want to suppress any opinion that is opposed to mine. When I avoid the truth because I feel afraid, I move away from the best that is in me”.

I made a gesture allowing that speaker to speak. He was a man who had held an important government position for some time. He questioned that if everyone is the highest authority, no one would respect anyone and the city would be left to chaos. I made an effort to clarify: “This point is extremely important and needs to be studied in depth”. I asked some Socratic-style questions: “Why, when we speak of authority, do we mean the control of the life of one person by another? For what reason, when I encounter an authority, personified in another individual, do I have the feeling of having the power of my existence usurped by someone else?”

“Why do we insist on solutions that are beyond ourselves? Perhaps this is why we never achieve them.”

I noticed that the audience had become restless. They still did not know exactly what I was referring to. I slowly clarified: “I am talking about the crises”. I paused on purpose and added: “Of all and any crisis. From financial to emotional, from political to existential. All crises feed on the absence of authority that each one has on him or herself”.

“By sheer logic, crises come to an end when we rescue that authority.”

“Crises are inevitable consequences of choices that, for some reason, have proved wrong. They can also demonstrate practices that were valid for a certain period of time and space, but which have outlived their usefulness. There will always be a need for change, this is an inexorable universal law.

“What does this mean? If I can understand that difficulties are evolutionary tools because they lead me to overcome the problem and make me a more virtuous individual, I will not let myself get down or resort to any kind of violence to get away from the crisis. I will reinvent myself”.

“It is essential to know and face the origins of the crisis within oneself. How each one of us has fed it, whether by action or by omission. Also, to recognise that crises are the seeds of great transformations, they often propel great evolutionary steps. But only when involved by love and wisdom, side by side.”

“When we overcome a crisis, we never come out the same or the same size. In truth, we become different and better than we were. Always.”

“It doesn’t matter the kind, origin or size of the crisis. If it hits you, it will probably seem serious to you. Nothing more natural that, like many, you feel disoriented about which course to take. You should listen to everyone and ponder; read a lot and reflect; meditate, pray. All this is extremely valuable. However, when you decide, do so within the greatest amplitude that your conscience can reach, choose for yourself, for your heart. You will make mistakes sometimes, and get it right other times, but you will be based on the foundations of your soul. So, when the consequences come, and they are inevitable, you will be at peace for having exercised full power over your life and for the dignified relationship you have with yourself. This is the action of those who are free.”

“The rudest of misconceptions is to delegate to someone else the fate of your existence. This is the only absence of leadership there can be. When this happens, when you transfer the power of your life to someone else, even if you feel some relief at first, this feeling will be shallow and short-lived. Soon will come the suffering that comes from domination, powerlessness and lack of horizons. With this, sadness will envelop you, manifested in depression; or revolt, exteriorized through violence. These are the modern slaves; they are many and, worse, they do not notice themselves in this role”.

“Every time we run away from ourselves and from the responsibility we have towards our own evolution, the truth reaches us through crises. Not to punish, but to correct our course and hand us the reins of life. Take them.”

“Every time I recognise an authority and give it the strength to make me decide in a way contrary to my ideas, values and virtues, I am handing over the power of my life to someone else”.

I pointed at some people again and said: “You are the only leader you should follow”.

The audience fell silent. I continued: “How difficult is it for us to understand that the only true power that each one of us has is to decide on our own life?  It is a fantastic power, transforming and often wasted. Why, even after centuries of suffering, even with the subsequent clarifications, do we persist in the ancestral vice of thinking of authority as an absurd tool for subjugating interests and wills?” I looked at the audience and said: “By recovering the authority over yourself, you will feel life pulsating again in the palm of your hand”.

The buzz returned; the discomfort was almost absolute. My eyes met those of the Elder in the audience. He merely nodded in approval. I took a deep breath to conclude.

“So, to emerge from a crisis, at least in a true and profound way, one will need to regain authority over one’s own life. All the rest is manipulation and escaping.”

I paused again before concluding: “No social transformation will be effective and efficient if it is not preceded by a personal revolution of values and virtues. The conscience needs to expand and the heart needs to overflow. When this doesn’t happen, History repeats itself, not as a farce, but as a lesson. The world cannot be changed without transforming the self; no crisis can be solved without enlightening the self”.

Driven by the speaker who had interrupted me, a thunderous booing broke out in the auditorium. I also heard some shouts, all of them of disapproval for my rhetoric. Mystical and alienated, were some of the accusations made. I was not surprised. My words were the antithesis of the beliefs that many believed immutable, within the closed parameters of political formulas repeated, though failed, over the centuries. The new causes repulsion until one understands that it has arrived, not to condemn the old to blindness, but to show the possibility of different perspectives.

The Elder, unlike the others, seemed to enjoy himself, for he smiled delightedly. I saw that only one woman, with curly hair and prescription glasses with a rounded rim, although in a shy way, was applauding me. The rector waited until the spirits calmed down, thanked everyone for their warm participation and promised that soon there would be another cycle of lectures. In the farewells, some speakers looked at me with disdain, others did not hide their satisfaction that my thesis had been booed. I think they believed themselves victorious. The Elder noticed their reaction as he approached me and, as he hugged me, whispered in my ear: “Never long for the victory of fools, only they do not understand that, in truth, they have won nothing”.

Then he wanted to know how I was doing. I was honest: “I’m fine. I no longer get upset when people disagree with me. I have stopped trying to convince people of my reasons, I do not want to exercise any authority over anyone. I strive to put forward my ideas clearly and calmly. Having authority only over myself is enough. No one need to follow me.” The Elder nodded in agreement and said: “In this way you will always allow yourself the necessary lightness not to stagnate when facing life’s setbacks”.

We were interrupted by the rector. The two of them had planned to talk alone. They had been friends for a long time. We agreed to meet at the station in the evening to take the train back to the monastery. With nothing to do, I walked around the campus until I found a beautiful garden. I sat down on one of the benches and enjoyed the movement of the students. I was surprised by the woman with curly hair and rounded glasses. Without asking permission, she sat beside me. She was carrying two cups of coffee and handed me one, as if she had no doubt that I would accept. I accepted, of course. I joked that it was only for the fact that she was the only person to applaud me that afternoon. She was a woman of singular beauty. She said her name was Meg and she was a teacher of mathematics at that university. Then she said that I should not rejoice at the applause as she was not sure if she had enjoyed my lecture. This is why she was there. I took a sip of coffee and gestured with my hand that she was free to speak.

Meg said that maybe I was far from reality. She didn’t think the idea of possessing full authority over oneself was so simple. Just as in mathematics, the question of authority was complex and had many variables. She said that, however, my words had touched her because of the connection they seemed to have with her life. She said she came from a traditional family, ruled by her grandmother, a rich matriarch, centralizing and very strict. As a teenager, she became pregnant and was forced to marry. The boy was from a well-known family with similar standards. Before long, the marriage turned out to be a nightmare. Although physical aggression never occurred, he treated her with contempt and even anger, as he considered that she had disrupted his life. Her husband graduated and became a respected executive in a powerful multinational. She had to drop her studies to take care of the house and of her son. Although she lived surrounded by luxury, she never had any emotional comfort. At family gatherings, the matriarch praised all her grandchildren, all graduates of renowned universities, but no praise was directed at her. Since her early pregnancy, she had never received a loving word from any of the family members, despite her constant efforts to make herself pleasant and helpful.

Every morning she felt like getting a divorce and starting a different life, but in the afternoon, she gave up. She knew that if she got divorced from her husband she would never again be accepted by her own family. There, no marriage had ever been broken. All she had to hear at parties and meetings was that everyone was a graduate except her. The husband in turn, knowing this, abused this emotional abandonment in which Meg had lived since pregnancy. Since she had neither studied nor had any professional experience, she could not see any way out.

Time passed. When his son graduated, he went to work abroad. The day she took him to the airport, when she was returning home, she made an important decision. She was going to continue her studies and graduate. As her husband did not care about what she did, as long as the house was in order and appearances were preserved, she finished high school and got a place at university. As she liked logical reasoning and felt at ease with numbers, she decided to study Applied Mathematics. She studied hard during the course and, when she graduated, she was invited to work at the college as an assistant professor.

On graduation day, she invited the whole family. Her son came from far away to pay homage to his mother. Her husband could not go, on the pretext of an important professional trip. A few relatives were present. Her grandmother sat in the front row. Meg’s heart leapt, as she was sure she would be presented with a graduation ring by the matriarch, as she had done with the other grandchildren. For Meg, the ring represented her long-dreamed-of family acceptance. However, a surprise. The grandmother, although she congratulated her, used the absurd argument that the ring was only deserved by those who followed respected careers, like doctors, engineers and lawyers, a tradition in the family.

The woman said that what should have been a very happy day was the saddest day of her life. After she had said goodbye to her son, without any complaints, she went home and cried all night. The next morning, when she took her husband’s suit to the laundry, she found a note in his pocket. She had just discovered one more of his innumerable cases of infidelity.

Meg removed her glasses to wipe away a rebellious tear. I asked her how long it had been since these facts had occurred. To my astonishment, she said that it had been several years. She confessed that she was determined to get divorced and face the rejection of her family. She would not give up feeling love for herself again. Or, as I had explained in my talk, to regain authority over her own life.

Although she had hired a lawyer for the divorce, she admitted that she had not yet taken any action, because it was very hard to leave the life she had behind. Sometimes she thought that, since she was hardened to pain, she should conform and go on with her usual routine, getting around one situation here and another there. At other times, when she imagined herself talking to her husband, her grandmother and the other relatives about her new purposes and choices, she panicked, certain of being massacred by criticism and scorn. She no longer wanted those days of suffering and abandonment, but she could not take the next step to end one existential cycle and start another.

It was a decision she had made for herself. However, she couldn’t turn it into action.

I shrugged and said: “You understand the crisis because you are able to identify the source of the pain. However, the fear of responsibility to break with the lifestyle you have settled into prevents you from enjoying the best that is in you. Deep down, you are not a victim of the emotional abandonment imposed by your family, as it may seem on superficial analysis. You are a victim of your own fear. Fear of being whole and authentic, of showing the world that each individual possesses a unique and peculiar beauty. Everyone has this right. In truth, you have surrendered to your fear. So only you can rescue yourself. I took a sip of coffee and reminded her: “It’s a mathematical logic”.

She argued that my thesis was not for ordinary, weak people like her. Moreover, she pondered, she did not like fights and confrontations in general. I tried hard to make sure that the tone of my voice was a mix between sweetness and firmness: “Being strong is a choice. A simple choice. Being strong must not be confused with brutality or violence of any nature. The strength of a person is established through the dignity with which he or she decides to treat him or herself and others. The power of an individual lies in the freedom with which he or she follows his principles and values, even if they are contrary to the wishes of many. A person’s light is in enveloping all problems with love. We only find peace when we live at the exact limit of our conscience, doing what it tells us. Happiness lies in finding beauty in every situation in life.”

“Only in this way do I regain authority over my existence.”

Meg maintained that that speech was not as simple and easy as I made it seem. I agreed only in part: “You are right when you say that it is not easy. Breaking with the past, weaving a different life, facing unknown situations, assuming responsibility for the consequences of new choices, tearing up the book of an existence that was taught as unique, requires a lot of effort in a process of understanding and construction. However, it is simple because it depends only on you”.

“To overcome the crisis in which you find yourself, you don’t need your husband’s permission, your grandmother’s seal of approval or anyone else’s approval. All you have to do is make a commitment to yourself. It’s breathtakingly simple”.

Meg said that maybe it was her karma to live with that family. I reminded her of the other side of the same question: “Karma, according to Eastern traditions, is learning. Nothing more than that. Karma persists as long as the lessons have not yet been internalized and applied in daily life. We can live alongside any family, however complicated it may be, but determining the limits between delicacy and justice, the extent of the permissions granted and having respect for oneself, lead to the extinguishing of karma in the perfecting of relationships”.

What if everything went wrong and her life got even worse, she questioned me. I shrugged again and replied with sincerity: “Nothing worse than not having yourself. That is the greatest of all abandonments”.

Then came the crucial moment. She asked me what I would do if I were in her place. I was laconic: “I don’t know”. Meg looked at me astonished; she was waiting for the exact answer that did not come. She insisted on the question, I maintained my position: “Once again you want to hand over the authority of your life to someone else. Thank you for your trust, but I refuse the invitation. I talk about philosophical questions, but I refuse to manage the lives of others”.

I saw the terror in Meg’s eyes. The fear of facing the truth, of taking control over one’s own existence and the inevitable consequences. This is the point where many give up. She wanted me to speak. Otherwise, I would find it difficult to proceed. But I couldn’t. If I did, it would not help her; it was time for her to fly over the abyss. She needed to learn to be guided by her own consciousness to discover and expand her truths. Otherwise, she would never have authority over herself.

She still waited for some time hoping I would speak. I kept silent. I went as far as I could. From then on it was Meg’s part alone. Hurt, she said I was a fraud and regretted ever coming to me for a chat. She claimed I didn’t have the answers she so desperately needed and left.

It was true, I didn’t have them. I never will. For a moment, I felt like saying that nobody has the answers about anybody’s life. Each one will find only the answers about his or her own life. That is the size of an authentic authority.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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