For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a problem with authority. When I’m stopped by a policeman for some minor infraction, I stammer and sweat. Immediately my thoughts go back to a principal in school we used to call the Vulture, and to one or two domineering men who ran monasteries in which I’ve lived. This is a real struggle that I’m always working on. And it’s not lost on me that I’m an author who mistrusts authority.
The word author comes from the Latin for “increasing” or “growing.” An author creates something new. In the best of worlds we are each the author of our own lives. But it often feels as though someone in a position of authority is taking over the task and writing our story for us.
And yet each of us has the challenge and the opportunity to create a new way of being human. We grow ourselves. Along the way, we may listen closely to someone we respect and admire and give that person a key role in our creative process. We share our precious authority. We hope they will help us author our lives—but only as long as we ask them to.
But in fact, people in authority often behave as if they are entitled to tell you who you should be and how to live. They might take your creative power and substitute their ideas for your own. This abuse of authority takes away the joy of creating your own existence and following your inner law, replacing it with the pain of doing what someone else wants.
It isn’t always easy, though, to author your own life. You have to take responsibility and make tough decisions. You have to pay attention, look for the signs about your destiny, your talents, and your fate. You have to experiment, take risks, and make mistakes. Sometimes it can be tempting to turn over your authority to someone who will make your decisions and take all the blame.
William Blake wrote: “I dare not pretend to be any other than the Secretary; the Authors are in Eternity.” Maybe he was talking about art, but his words apply to our lives and personal stories. We act on the dictates of fate and do our best to create the life that has been mysteriously ordained for us. Like the artist, we listen to the muse and live by inspiration, experiment, and improvisation.
So, in the end, we realize our authority doesn’t really belong to us after all. It comes from within—and yet it’s also mysteriously deep and “other.” It’s a complicated business, authoring our lives. If we can do it, we can find deep joy in our capacity to create something, someone, new. But we may have to insist on our authority, because someone will always appear who wants that enjoyment for himself—a parent, a spouse, a business partner, a spiritual teacher. Remind this person of Blake’s insight: the authors are in eternity. You and I—our job is to listen.
If you are a person of authority, as most of us are in some way, try looking at your job as one of fostering obedience to authors who are timeless and invisible. Your task is to help your charge obey instructors and guides, the mysterious ones, the watchers. You might find that by listening for and fostering authority in someone else, you deepen it within yourself.
To find joy, you have to be careful how you distribute your own authority. Your own doesn’t mean a limited, egotistical control over your actions, but rather your own response to what life asks of you. This kind of personal authority is deep-seated and selﬂess. It resolves the split between dominance and submission: You obey and you have power. It’s a way to be in touch with the timeless source of life. And therein lies its joy.
Create Your Own Authority
- If you’re a leader, reﬂect on how you show authority. Are you helping other people experience their own expertise and initiative?
- Don’t think of a community as a group of followers. Think about how each person is creating a new and individual life.
- The real authors exist “in eternity,” says Blake. What signs are they sending you to mark your life’s path?
- Find joy in living your own life, not someone else’s idea of what is right and good.
- The word authority shares the same root as author. Think about how authority is not control, but creativity.