Is Big Authority a Hammer or a Benevolent Protector?

Watching my son sleep I seek a civil tomorrow

Authority is a big-sounding word. It has an impressive meaning: the knowledgeable power to control. But do we disdain or respect that, seeing authority as a hammer over our head or a benevolent protector?

I am remembering something from the past, while at the same time looking across this apartment to where my teenage son sleeps. Years ago I lived the single man’s expat life in Taipei, a city of wooden abacuses and glassy skyscrapers. One humid day I was walking along Chungshan North Road when I heard a commotion behind me. Turning I saw a woman arguing with a traffic cop. After dismounting his Harley, the booted policeman had scribbled a ticket and handed it to her. She was yelling in protest, waggling her finger angrily at the officer, scowling beside her pink motor scooter. I recall thinking that would never have happened a decade earlier when Taiwan was under martial law. Her previous generation had feared crossing Chiang Kai-shek.

Has a dislike of those in power intensified? Consider the beer bottles thrown from upper decks at baseball umpires, violent unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, and how the opposition political party always fumes nastily against the one in charge. The military is a shining example of an organization that cannot function without a tightly buttoned commander-subordinate hierarchy. Still, there are cases of soldiers disobeying.

Respect for rules helps prosperity and survival. Children need to learn that, consistently from parents and teachers. Imagine what it would be like without traffic regulations on busy roads, legal protection in communities and referees at basketball games. What a mess reports would be if all staff writers did not adhere to house style consistency. Disrespectful adult citizens may have become that way because they were not taught moral standards when growing up. Frightened of that possibility, I want my son to learn peaceable behavior.

There are examples to share and discuss with him. In America, a black new widow publicly forgives the soul of a white gunman after Carolina church killings. A former POW in his eighties travels to Japan to befriend the wartime enemy who had tortured him. There are instances of societal love. A Taiwanese charity says to care for the entire world not just your family. In Thailand, I have seen passengers give their seats to Buddhist monks who board the trains. Filipinos spared by an earthquake come together carrying cinder blocks and paint to rebuild a less-fortunate family’s home; the kindness is repaid by a meal of chicken adobo celebrated with coconut wine.

When I look at my teenage son, his potential in this interurban world growing faster than big data, I tell myself to strive for correctness. It does not work when the person in charge—in my case me—is not a trustworthy role model. Be firm, reliable and calm. I want him to admire that I am providing guidance to help him make his own decisions, whether about education, health, employment, or how to handle heartbreak and new romance.

The scooter woman had a disagreement with her police officer, but she showed it hatefully. By the time my son gets his motorcycle, pickup or car, I hope he will have already learned to react with civility.


Embracing Your Past Can Help Soothe the Present

Our ancestors sailed off only to fight new battles

Suffering runs deep in the history of humankind. Realizing that can be good therapy. Emotional pain is not unique to your time or self. So when modern society pulls your spirit down, perhaps embracing the past will provide comfort.

I know a woman who after divorce lived with a despairing mood for a few years. Facing life single in her fifties was no fun. Then she started visiting locations of her ancestral past, and that appeared to help. I understood this one summer morning, watching her slip that little car into reverse and back away from her suburban house.

A devoted schoolteacher, she always spoke from a strict mind, but her chipmunk cheeks attested to a pardoning personality. More and more, though, any laughter sounded muffled, the grins less broad than a decade earlier, each facial expression cast forth conservatively to keep wrinkles from deepening. She often bluntly said, “I wasted my younger years on the wrong man.”

Feeling unfortunate is simply bad for anyone. It can even cause health problems such as weight gain or loss, as well as the loneliness. Some sufferers might seek peace in narcotics or alcohol. Others, as was her situation, instead see work as the escape, though a temporary one.

She would chat with me about new curriculum, grading papers, bullying or funding woes. But mostly it was the students. You could hear her satisfaction in guiding students past the pits and snares of growing up in broken homes, early pregnancies or forays into vandalism. She admired their determination, appreciating that people who are going through hell wish there could be something better. She believed they truly needed her, and that provided solace. But when school let out, the weeks of idleness allowed the unhappy feeling to take over again.

This existed until she decided to drive off for the Eastern Shore that summer. I imagine her easing the four-cylinder compact into the beltway flow, settling into the middle-right lane. Bright songs were another short comfort for her. Turning the radio dial, she would find the rumba and bossa-nova tunes played on organs. She’d likely be passed by big rigs, bearded men resting huge forearms on rolled-down windows. Smiling, they’d mimic her bobbing to the music. Exiting away from the city’s rush hour, her car putters across the long bridge that spans the zillion-spangled Chesapeake Bay. She passes through green-blue communities of cornfields and sailboat marinas.

In the 1600s, an English trading ship crossed the Atlantic Ocean and sailed up the Chesapeake into the Potomac River. After a long voyage, the group of gentlemen, wives, planters, indentured servants and missionaries developed the first colonial settlement of Maryland. They came for profit, adventure, religion, but mostly to find freedom. One of these passengers was her direct ancestor, who died there in a war with Native Americans. Stopping, she visits the historic town, walking among ruins and restorations and watching the woodland tribal reenactments.

Turning later into the pines and sand driveway of what will be her summer home, she parks with a gravel sound. I imagine her sitting there thinking. … She had gone there to escape, only to realize that her freedom-seeking ancestors had tried the same thing and ended up fighting battles against Indians.

Each school break since, she continued making that passage to the coastal lands and heritage sites where her people had first learned how to live. I think it helped her see that surviving is a process where you have to keep healing.