Ask yourself: Are the choices I make truly mine or am I on auto-pilot and merely walking the path of habits? There are millions who are running in circles dictated by circles within circles. Is the autonomy you believe to experience actually autonomy, or is it the crystallization of norms imposed on you by abstract or factual others? The answer to that question may lie within the respect you have for someone else’s autonomy.
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
– Mark Twain
My father was – and is – different than most fathers I have met. Other fathers had a bookshelf or a toolshed, mine a bench press. Other fathers brought an occasional visit to the stadium for a game or to the cafe for a beer, mine frequented raves to dance to techno music (which he still does). When I grew up, many friends told me my dad was ‘cool’. As opposed to theirs, the dads who would be spending most of their time in the toolshed, fabricating birdhouses.
These kids were, probably not knowingly, rebellious: they felt like the petty bourgeois life of a model citizen wasn’t very appealing. They preferred something ‘cool’ instead. House music, rather than birdhouses. At the time, it was very annoying to hear all these complaints about ‘traditional parents’ from dissatisfied teenagers wishing for adventure and action. The only thing I needed was a sense of stability. And perhaps some additional support in my intellectual pursuits.
Obviously, there wasn’t much appreciation for their rebelliousness to be expected from me. They chose to disagree with the majority of parents, but only to make up another majority of teenagers, bothering another minority consisting of me. And those who were intentionally rebellious, probably failed to even recognize they were just another mass. We tend to forget that even when we try to demonstrate individuality, there are often norms and values we’re adhering to.
There has changed a lot since I was a teenager. Not my father: he’s still a hardworking man, enjoying life to the fullest in the weekends. But I have come to accept and even value a couple of these somewhat extraordinary aspects of what and who he is. Moreover: what he chooses to be. I sometimes find myself defending his lifestyle when people whom I talk with ask critical questions or make mocking remarks. On the other hand, I also tend to behave like a guardian of mediocrity when surrounded by self-proclaimed free souls or high achievers being judgmental. Call me the advocate of the underdog. Something I most likely could never have become without the father I have. It is all about freedom and autonomy.
By his choices, even those I would never make myself, he has taught me about freedom, satisfaction, and humbleness. Now, I have a better understanding of the importance of a balance between having respect for someone else’s autonomy and our personal desires and expectations towards them. If everybody would act in accordance with one’s own desires and expectations towards others, the world would presumably be too small. If everybody would act in accordance with respect for other people’s autonomy, the world would still be too small, but at least offer room for improvement. In relationships, respect for autonomy may serve your own interests even better than living with high expectations.
My father has shown me that you can live life according to your own preferences and that it’s best to be very selective about letting the opinions of others affect your choices. That’s not to say you shouldn’t care about others’ needs, but for him it means that expectations towards others should ideally be based on mutual agreement and respect for autonomy, not desire or tradition. And in his experience, the latter is usually the case. Basically, he provided me with the tools I needed to escape the traditions and suffocating mold of our lower class environment and head for an alternative destination without feeling bad about it. He had his own way of conveying what Mark Twain intended with his words.
A mantra that delivered me into the hands of just another majority: that of middle class university students. With their own norms, values, and traditions. Of course, there was also a number of other students who came from an atypical background like me. Who didn’t feel like they could blend in. But since one can contemplate groups within groups, there can also be majorities and minorities within minorities, as the example from my teenage years already showed. Unfortunately, people who feel like they belong to a minority, including me, frequently forget that they forget about the relativity of social positions. Until a couple of years ago, I didn’t realize how often I belong to majorities myself. Situations in which I forgot to reflect on the origin and possible consequences of the choices I made, and habit kicked in.
If we think of a ladder that orders all the groups we can think of, from the smallest to the biggest, the lowest rung is assumably the family. So what Mark Twain basically says, is that we should even pause and reflect when – or rather before – we agree with our partner. After I have agreed on doing something without having given it much thought or in a heated discussion with my girlfriend, I am often reminded of the importance of reflection. And let’s not forget about the decisions we make for our children. Examples like these may seem pretty trivial, but run parallel to the bigger picture. Out of convenience, it can be very tempting to live a habitual life. But it is far from sure that habits take the interests of others into account, because they are often based on convenience and tradition. Not necessarily on consideration.
Pause and reflection are always important, but especially when groups are considered: because minorities are always at risk. Because a majority’s decisions can have severe effects for the minority. For its autonomy. It is clear that the majority has the power to pose a serious threat to another’s freedom and autonomy. Therefore, Twain’s quote is nothing but a call for constant individual thinking, because individual thinking is the only means of stopping suffocating tradition or collective rationality, which can be toxic to autonomy. But habit and tradition are not only potentially hazardous for the minority’s autonomy; agreeing with the majority may also imply that the majority’s members are no longer autonomous.
Apparently, we’re often on the side of at least one majority. And since we’re forced to reflect when we’re in a minority, it seems always time for pause and reflection. For we always run the risk of acting out of habit. I felt like I was hardly ever on the side of the majority, but now that I realize I am day after day, I’m grateful for having learned to pause and reflect. It’s something we too often forget and could be doing a little more. Without reflection or pause, we won’t be able to draw an informed conclusion, let alone one that respects everyone’s freedom to choose. As my teenage experience shows, neither tradition nor reckless rebelliousness seems to be enough ground to legitimate an assertion or action. But whether that’s really the case, is something for you and me to find out. I guess it’s the perfect time for some pause and reflection.