On (Dis)obedience and Being Good

"You must find a way to get in the way and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. To save this little piece of real estate that we call earth for generations yet unborn. You have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate when you leave here to go out and seek justice, for all. You can do it, you must do it." —John Lewis at Bates College

"You must find a way to get in the way and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. To save this little piece of real estate that we call earth for generations yet unborn. You have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate when you leave here to go out and seek justice, for all. You can do it, you must do it." —John Lewis at Bates College

I've been thinking a lot lately about obedience. Growing up, being "good" was a central part of my identity—more, I think, than I ever consciously realized or would have liked to admit. As an older sibling, one of the tallest (and bossiest) children in my class, an early reader and unusually proficient test-taker, I learned early on that the perks of doing what I was told suited me.

To secure the approval of my elders, I got straight A's and read more challenging books than my peers (grown-ups heaped praise on me when I picked up Carl Sagan's Contact at age 11, but didn't seem to notice when I gave up 100 pages in). I was always one of the first to raise my hand in class, to be properly mortified and course-correct when scolded. I became the friend everyone's parents trusted them to play with, because I rarely strayed or got into trouble. 

Playing by the rules meant never getting detention, never breaking a bone, receiving fewer lectures from parents and teachers. To be honest, it made me pretty holier-than-thou for a long, long time, but it rarely occurred to me, because for all I knew then, obeying authority and my elders was synonymous with doing the right thing. Nonviolent disobedience was utterly abstract, a historic milestone to be celebrated in retrospect yet irrelevant to my reality.

Over the past few years, the fact that this nebulous idea would soon be made flesh in my own life has grown sharper and sharper, but clearly, like plenty of otherwise comfortable white Americans, it finally crashed through the guardrail and rolled to a stop at my feet this fall. Finally, perhaps inevitably, but in my naïveté improbably, the question was being asked of me plainly: IF AN AUTHORITY FIGURE IS WRONG, WILL YOU DISOBEY? And naturally, it terrified me. 

It's still terrifying me, every day, every second I spend scrolling through headlines and commentary that seems to get darker by the day. Resistance is no longer simply a concept, an untested value system or an aesthetic to cultivate with pop culture tropes and talismans that set you apart from the vanilla masses. There will be real consequences, for someone, and the option has come to my door: be safe and letting them fall elsewhere, or welcome them myself. I know what I must do—and keep doing—to live with myself, but it will mean breaking every habit, every impulse, every comfortable motion I've carved deep into my person. It will mean not waiting for my elders or my leaders to tell me where to be most useful; it will mean using my money and my body as a shield, if necessary, risking pain and rejection and punishment, because not doing so would constitute losing a part of myself, the part that matters most to me.

Though I am certainly not religious, I think about this tweet pretty much constantly, and I am petrified. Will I still be able to be the person I've always strived to be when it matters? When it hurts? Well, perhaps "petrified" is the wrong word. I can still move for now, I am preparing; I just hope to whatever power that exists in the universe that, when the time comes, I won't freeze.