Steen mug shot


“Authority without wisdom is like a heavy axe without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish.” Anne Bradstreet

“Oysters are the best! You have to try them,” she said.

“No, thanks, I don’t want to,” I responded.

“You are going to eat an oyster,” she demanded, shoving the slimy “delicacy” toward my mouth.

It did not end well for any of us that night. I was an adult being told by my employer that I must eat a food she loved. Because I was a young adult and afraid of making her mad, I did what she said. My body responded in a way that should have surprised no one. 

It was one of the first times I can remember deciding that I would no longer allow someone to force me to eat things I didn’t want to eat. Bradstreet wrote her words in the 1600s, and they are still worth hearing today — having authority over someone is not an impressive thing if you have no wisdom to accompany your position.

Many of my friends love oysters regardless of the way the little critter is prepared, and I am as happy for the joy they find in that meal as I hope they are in my meal of a spinach and wild blueberry smoothie. We like what we like, don’t we? 

Textures of foods are a big deal, and that has impacted my food choices all my life. But this isn’t about food, this is about authority, consent and respect. It is about anyone who is in a position of authority and everyone who is under the authority of another person (which we all are).

Who are the authority figures in your life? Employer, manager of your department, teacher (if you are a student), principal (if you are a teacher), police, fire marshal, and even a parent is an authority figure of sorts. There are more, but this is a good place to start. Each of these authority figures is considered to be a leader. There are good leaders and bad leaders, and my employer’s forcing me to eat an oyster will stand as an example of not very good leadership.

If you are an authority figure in anyone’s life, do you ever think about what kind of leader you are? Where do respect and consent figure into your leadership style?

Respect. How do you earn it, and how do you show it? I might be polite to you because you are my boss, but that doesn’t mean I respect you. Many opinions exist on what gains respect. Here are a few from several sources. Earning and showing respect require the same things not too surprisingly.

  • Have a moral code
  • Speak up for others
  • Listen
  • Be kind
  • Affirm people
  • Keep confidences

Consent. From what you ask of an employee to what you require of a patient requesting records, consent is a big player in the world of leadership and authority. Did you ask your employee’s consent before you recorded a conversation? Did you tell someone about a patient you’ve been seeing without the patient’s consent? Did you get the consent of the guy or the girl before you assumed they wanted to have sexual relations? 

Consent is defined as an individual’s agreement to allow a certain action to take place. Have you thought about how this figures into your relationships with other people?

Authority figures believe they are in a position to rule without worrying about respect or consent. In many cases, they get away with it because people (victims) are afraid to stand up for themselves. We see it every day in the news — and we often call the person in the authority role a bully. What about when you look at my opening story about the oyster, though?

I was shamed and threatened into trying to eat that oyster. It is shocking and offensive to most people who hear the story, but what if we make a change in the characters? What if the boss is a parent and the employee is a child, does it change how you feel?

The term I’ve come across is childism, and it is the belief that many in society dehumanize children because they are ... children. The subject was dropped into my lap recently, and I’ve given it a lot of thought as I’ve perused social media. I have seen photos of children screaming as they were forced to sit in Santa’s lap because the parent was determined to have the photo, stories of children forced to give a hug and kiss to a relative who made them feel uncomfortable all because the parent didn’t want to be embarrassed, videos and photos of children handling life, the way children often do, shared as humor by unaware parents, memories of children being forced to be the people their parents needed them to be.

This continues in many homes until one day the children (much like the employee who has had enough, the abused spouse who has had enough, the gossiped-about patient who has had enough) decide they are going to make their own choices, and they might be extreme in the eyes of the parents. Why do we treat children as if they are less human than we are, have less valuable opinions than we do, and must do whatever we say as long as we are “in charge”?

Maybe this is a good time to find a balance between being the adult to help guide and being the adult to lord over someone smaller. Whether it is with our children, our employees, our spouses, or our friends, it seems The Golden Rule is more pertinent than ever — Treat others the way you want to be treated. 

If you are my friend, and I value you as a person, why would I think it’s OK to lie to you, cheat you or talk down about you? If you are my employee, and I value your presence in my place of work, why would I underpay you or be unkind to you? If you are my student, and I want you to grow into a wise, compassionate, successful person, why would I treat you as anything less than wise, compassionate and successful right now?

You and I are in authority somewhere in our lives, and without wisdom, we can be certain that our axes will bruise, not polish. Let’s fix that today.

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others.

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