Valor in Discretion

question authority

When I was but a wisp of a person, maybe all of 116 pounds soaking wet while wearing a heavy wet towel, I had this shirt. It was a black tee. It was a present. I forgot who gave it to me, but they thought it captured my essence well. It said “QUESTION AUTHORITY” in big white block letters. That wasn’t all, though.

The “QUESTION” part was X’d out and printed on top in a screaming red scrawl was a four-letter word that began with an Eff and completed with a Kay. You figure it out.

I wore it in public.

My world was a college campus populated primarily by 18-24 year olds. I don’t think that I would recognize old people or families with kids. If professors walked across campus, they didn’t register to me. I would buy my coffee from a student or maybe a recent student. The bar patrons were reflections of me. People in the library didn’t look up. If somebody thought that my shirt was an affront, I didn’t recognize it.

I told my kids about that shirt. And I told them I was sorry that I wore it.

Sure, it was my right to speech. Sure, I liked being provocative in a crude and danger-loving kind of way. Sure, nobody ever said anything to me. But I’m also sure that someone was upset or hurt or shocked. There was really no value to parading around in that shirt–other than to display my immaturity and self-absorption. Nope, not much value there.

But at that time, I was trying things out and was foolishly proud that I didn’t shirk from being on the wrong side of people who weren’t me and my narrow tribe. I was all id in formation of a grown-up ego.

It makes me think about that scene in a movie where the woman is trying to get someone to attend to her sick child and finally gets the attention of the insensitive doctor via tirade. Or the scene where the snooty sales clerk humiliates a shopper and the friend tears the clerk up one side and down the other. Or when the mild-mannered mom stands up against book burning at the PTA meeting of neanderthals. Or when a character finally and publicly tells off his boss in a most clever and profanity peppered speech. And there’s always the guy screaming out the window that he’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

All of us cheered for each one of them. We were all on the side of the person who pushed through polite mores and let loose. We were relieved by these moments when someone is not holding back, when they act free from the constraints of civilized society and when they are being righteous!

Civilized society, though, stops us from screaming at strangers when wronged. Mostly because screaming and giving in to our lizard brains feel good, but only for that minute. Mostly because our perceived slights are more slight than not. Mostly because we risk substituting our lack of control for being truly righteous.

Grown ups know that we damage our relationships with others when we act outrageously. Usually the goal is to come to a resolution versus stage an excellent colloquy in which the character we play “wins.”

I learned to measure my foot-stomping child-self. I sometimes fail, but I know that there is good reason to avoid most fights. It’s to make sure when you do fight, it’s worth fighting for.

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