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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Obedience versus Intelligence

It has been raining on and off every single day for many days now. The outer pen is flooded and Bow cannot go out to play.


Bow is not a saint. He does not walk on water. In fact, he also refuses to walk in water. He does not want to get his feet wet. When he was little and we went outside early in the morning, if there was dew on the grass he would insist on riding on my back rather than exploring.

But it is tedious to be stuck indoors with not much to do, so yesterday Bow asked to go outside. I took him all the way to the entrance of the outer pen and opened the door for him to go out, but he just sat there and stared at the water covered floor and the wet bench, and he did not choose to go.


When Bow is not happy, I don't get to be happy, either. He will keep asking for things, and then when I give them to him, it turns out he didn't actually want them, and then he gives them back to me, and then he asks for more things, which he also doesn't really want.

When Bow is not happy, he makes raspberry sounds and rocks back and forth and interrupts conversations that I have on the phone or on Skype. "Can't you just explain to him that he needs to be quiet so that you can hear what I am saying?" somebody asked me. "After all, he is so intelligent. Surely, he will understand, if you explain it to him."

"He already understands," I answer. "He is intelligent, and it's not about understanding. It's about choosing to cooperate or not."

This is one of the most difficult points to get across to anyone. "If he is so smart, why doesn't he do what you tell him?"

"Because he's smart enough to get me to do what he tells me."

Of course, I don't do everything that Bow tells me to do, either. I might as well ask: "If I am so smart, why don't I always do as he says?"

The answer, of course, is that intelligence is not obedience. Obedience is not intelligence. They are two separate things. Someone who always obeys is not necessarily stupid. He's not necessarily smart. But he has accepted a subservient position to somebody else, and neither Bow nor I are quite ready to do that, vis a vis each other.

True obedience is not about being afraid of the other person. It is not about giving up your own capacity for critical thinking. It is about accepting another person's leadership unconditionally. I wrote about obedience in my recent novel, Theodosia and the  Pirates.  Obedience is a wonderful trait to have. But in my current household, nobody seems to feel sufficient reverence for anybody else to practice the virtue of obedience. Which is to say, we may love each other, but none of us accepts complete and utter subservience to another.

Many dogs are known for their obedience. This comes in handy when trying to prove what they know. A while ago, a friend shared with me a video about a border collie who knew the names of a very large number of toys and could prove it by fetching the required toy on command. The dog named Chaser could prove that she knew over a thousand words, because she never tired of doing exactly as she was told.

When I watched the video with Bow, he told me: "The dog is stupid."

"Why do you think she's stupid?"

He spelled: עושה מה שאומרים. "Does what is told."

He didn't think she was stupid because she understood the commands. He thought she was stupid because she put up with the test. Many people flunk tests ostensibly designed to test their intelligence, but which in fact test their ability to follow directions without any internal motivation.

If Bow would just cooperate with me in proving he has language, he might get a lot of things that he wants, such as, for instance, a companion of his own kind and  a five acre island to be king of. But explaining this to him does not help me secure his cooperation, not because he is stupid, but because he does not choose to play along. He would feel stupid if he did as I asked.

What does freedom actually mean? Does it mean having money, power and everything you could want in return for pleasing others? Or does it mean living only to please yourself?

It depends on what sort of person you are. If you are a border collie with a good master, or a follower with a good leader, then maybe obedience is exactly what makes you happy. But if that is not the case for you, then listening to your inner voices may make you much happier, even if it does not get you any loot, space or companionship.

Ultimately, if you do what makes you happy, then you are truly smart.

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