My first full-time boss was the stupidest man alive.
When I changed jobs the next year, my new boss took the title from him. He was even more ridiculous and infuriating. He was a moron with no judgment. My third boss was stupid in different ways. He made me bristle at his asinine decisions. Why was someone like this giving me orders?
It wasn’t until the next boss — my fourth — that it finally dawned on me. Maybe they weren’t the problem, at least not entirely. Maybe I just have a problem with authority.
August Landmesser had a problem with the Nazi Party. His refusal to salute Adolph Hitler in 1936 — when the entire crowd around him was doing so — is now considered a popular example of resistance to authority.
Landmesser had reason to dislike Hitler and his Nazis. He had tried to join the party in the early ’30s — because he thought it would be good for his career — but then he fell in love with a Jewish woman and his life was derailed. By 1936, he was bitter and angry. He had plenty of reason to oppose the people who had taken authority over Germany. He lost his beloved wife and their children.
I don’t have any political reason for having a problem with authority. I haven’t had authority figures telling me who I can love or marry. But I finally figured out why I was so filled with rage at the “stupid” people who gave me orders at my jobs.
Every new boss in my life because a new stand-in for my father. To obey them — whether they were right or wrong, wise or foolish — felt as though I was still being forced to obey the man who demanded unquestioning obedience when I was a child.
These bosses weren’t really stupid, although I had legitimate disagreements with each of them. Instead, I was destined to rage against anyone who took a position of authority over me.
I couldn’t take orders well. I still can’t.
When my father called me — let’s say from the other end of the house — I had to immediately drop whatever I was doing and run to him, brightly saying “Yes, sir?” when I arrived.
I couldn’t delay for any reason. There was one time when I was in the middle of doing a task which needed to be finished or else it would have to be started again. When my father called for me, I did something which I had noticed adults do with each other. I called out, “Just a minute!” He stormed into wherever I was, screaming about my lack of respect and then he spanked me.
I never made that mistake again.
Early in my process of therapy with a good psychologist 10 years ago — after making no progress with a string of lousy therapists — she asked me, “What would have happened if you had defied your father?”
I couldn’t even come up with an answer. Defying him openly was inconceivable. The best answer I could come up with for her is that I would have spontaneously combusted. It felt that lethal to defy his most trivial command. We weren’t even allowed to disagree with him. To even like music or jokes which he didn’t like could be dangerous.
Even after all these years, I bristle at taking orders.
Even when I’m taking instructions — polite and reasonable instructions — from someone who is paying me for my service, I chafe at being told what to do. It’s doubly horrific when I can see that it’s the wrong course of action, but even if it’s a perfectly routine and polite request, I can feel rage at having to take orders.
I’ve spent most of my adult life working for myself. I didn’t mind having clients, because I could fire clients or simply refuse to do what they wanted. (I sometimes did both.) But for the last four years, I’ve had to take orders again. I’ve had a tremendous amount of freedom in my jobs in those years, but some little part of me — a part that rages at authority — bristles each time I’m told what to do.
I know that I need to work for myself again. I hope to be completely back in that position soon, but it’s not easy to get back to where I need to be.
People such as August Landmesser are considered cultural heroes for defying political authority, but he was fighting a battle not because of politics but because he had no respect for the man who destroyed his family.
My reasons for defying authority — and raging against it when I must obey — don’t look as noble as his, but it feels just as personal to me. Inside this man who rages at authority today is a little boy who feels repressed anger at having to obey. Every time I want to resist, that little boy is drawing himself up to his full height and screaming, “You do not own me!”
August Landmesser paid a price for his defiance of the Nazis. I’ve paid a different kind of price for finally defying my father — and then for having problems with everybody in authority over me since then.
We both had our reasons for raging against the people who gave us orders, whether others understood or not.
Note: Here’s August Landmesser’s full story if you’re interested.