Thursday, July 06, 2017

Serving One Another

Our school has a number of mantras, one of the most useful being, "I'll be the boss of me and you be the boss of you," typically spoken by me when a kid is trying to tell me what to do. I say it reflexively when anyone attempts to command me and I just happen to spend most of my time with kids. A few parents curse me for teaching it to their kids, but most have gratefully adopted it for use in their own families.

Yesterday, one of my old buddies spent the morning with us, a guy who is on is way to third grade. One of the things I'll always remember about him is that he was the only kid to have ever responded to our mantra by saying, "No, my mom is the boss of me." As we were messing around with preschoolers in the sandpit boat, I used the expression, then reminded him of what he had once told me.

"Did I really say that?"

"You did."

He responded thoughtfully, "I was a good kid." Then after a few seconds, added, "Now I'm the boss of me."

We are all, always, the boss of ourselves because if we're not, we're someone's slaves. This is why you'll never see me darkening the hallways of some corporate hierarchy. This is why I cringe whenever someone refers to elected officials, even the President, as "leaders: the proper way to refer to them is "representatives." This is why I won't say "Yes, sir" or "Yes, ma'am" to anyone, nor will I tolerate anyone saying those kinds of subservient things to me. I might be your servant, but I'll never be your slave. I might do what you want me to do, but not out of obedience.

It's easy, I think, in our society in which we revere economic competition as a kind of religion and treat tycoons as royalty, to forget that just because we are responsible it doesn't mean we're somehow the superior of those for whom we're responsible. I'm responsible for keeping children safe, but that doesn't mean I get to boss the kids around. I'm responsible for adhering (at least loosely) to a schedule, but that doesn't mean I get to boss the kids around. I'm responsible for their social-emotional well-being while they're under my care, but that doesn't mean I get to boss them around. Because I'm responsible there are some things that I "can't" let them do, but that is a function of my responsibility, not my authority. Authority is a kind of power over others and the proper thing to do with power is to give it away; responsibility is a kind of service to others and the proper thing to do is to serve them to the fullness of my ability, even if it is painful, even if it makes them mad at me.

It pains me that my friend defined his former obedience as "good," but it heartens me to know that he has come to understand that it is better to be the boss of himself, even if his mother continues to be responsible for safety, schedules and courtesy, things we only learn through experience.

To paraphrase the late, great Utah Phillips, I will not obey, but I am always ready to agree. That is how I try to live in this world and that is what I expect of my fellow humans as well. I'll be the boss of me and you be the boss of you and together we will make a place where we can stand together, eye-to-eye or shoulder-to-shoulder, serving one another.

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