The Irony of Rebellion (Part I)

Simple pendulum by Ethan Hein (CC BY)

Simple pendulum by Ethan Hein (CC BY)

When I was twelve I realized my parents were crazy, and that anything they did, I should do the opposite.
—Abuse survivor, quoted by Laura Davis
Like many animals, dogs reflexively oppose restraint. . . . when the leash tightens . . . her natural tendency is to pull harder. —Jolanta Benal
Both [conformity and rebellion] are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.
―Neal Stephenson
Originality is the best form of rebellion. ―Mike Sasso


You thrive in fresh air and sunlight as plants do. When people threaten you with windowless rooms, you instinctively defend yourself. It’s natural to rebel against those who’d confine you.

Like dogs who strain against pulled leashes, we literally oppose constraint. Citizens challenge elected officials. Dissenters stage marches and sit-ins. Green activists obstruct logging equipment. Journalists write exposés. Children learn the word “no” and, newly empowered, refuse everything. Relief by opposition lasts as long as you keep resisting.

When confrontation doesn’t work, we withdraw. Fearful dogs hide under beds. Children stick their fingers in their ears. Shoppers boycott harmful businesses. Harassed people dodge bullies. Dissatisfied voters revoke their support. Relief by avoidance lasts as long as you keep away.

Both approaches—essentially, fight or flight—can break the immediate hold of confining people, places, or things. Like an adrenaline surge that helps you lift a crushing weight long enough to free someone beneath it, subversion brings temporary relief and buys you time to act constructively. But defiance—whether fleeing or fighting—is only a first step to freedom.

Rebellion is innately bipolar: an unhealthy situation (point A) prompts opposing action (point B). But most things don’t have an opposite. Life is too complex to isolate and remove a single offending element. Your recipe for thriving might be just a dash different than your recipe for disaster. Even poison, in small amounts, can help cure the deadly effects of larger doses. Either/or is a myth.

Here lies the irony of rebellion: prolonged defiance binds you to your original problem. Like a pendulum, the things you oppose determine your trajectory. Momentum drives a pendulum’s weight back and forth between endpoints A and B, but nowhere else. The rut it creates is a straight and fixed line.

You can only begin where you are. Your experience comes with a large X that marks your initial point of reference. But returning to it after you’ve exhausted its usefulness wastes your energy. Short term rebellion can release tension when things grow hard to bear. But with long term rebellion, your life is dictated by what you would escape.

Click here to read Part II of this article.

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