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The power of words from authority

When I was in high school, many years ago, I remember having a terrible headache. It was so bad, in fact, that I threw up my breakfast on the way to school because I got that disoriented by the pain. It was very hard for me to concentrate on anything that whole day, and everyone could tell that I was sick. However, I stuck it out and didn’t go to the school nurse. Why? I didn’t go to the school nurse because, that morning, I had told my mother about my headache and she had brushed it aside. I told her I would go to the school nurse as soon as I got to school as a sign that I wasn’t faking the headache to get out of school. “You go ahead,” she said, “and, when you’re seeing her, tell her you’re a hypochondriac.”

I didn’t know what “hypochondriac” meant, but I thought it was something serious. I thought I had been born with some sort of genetic condition that was now manifesting itself through the headache. I thought I was going to die.

Of course, I didn’t die. I went to the library at school and looked up the definition of hypochondriac. See, a hypochondriac is someone who is abnormally anxious about their health, and they feel that they have something that is going to kill them. I did feel exactly that way that morning, but I didn’t feel “abnormally anxious” until my mother said I was a hypochondriac and I didn’t know what that meant. Before that, I just felt like I had the flu.

As soon as I got home that night, I fell asleep. I remember my throat burning. I didn’t eat anything the whole day because I was afraid of throwing up again. And all that time, I was afraid to complain to my own mother because I was afraid that she would emphasize her accusation of me being a hypochondriac. I’d eventually get better a couple of days later.

After I graduated from college, I went to visit my relatives in El Paso, Texas. I was living on the East Coast at the time, and my visits were once a year, if that. One summer, I traveled by car all the way to El Paso and got to visit my relatives and friends. One of those friends was “Jenny” (not her real name), a girl I had been obsessed with since middle school. (That whole story is pretty long all to itself.) It just so happened that my mother was in Chihuahua, a few hours south of El Paso and over the border in Mexico. I went to visit her as well. Before I left to go back to El Paso (I had a two week break), she made the demand that I stay in Chihuahua with her. She said that no one really appreciated me in El Paso and that the people that mattered had left. What mom didn’t know was that I had a date with Jenny, and I wasn’t going to miss that opportunity for anything.

The next day after my date with Jenny, my mother called me. She said that I should go back to Chihuahua and see her because she was my mother and because Jenny would never care about me. Mom said Jenny never cared about me to begin with, so why would she care now that I was just passing-by on vacation? I thought about it a lot, and I left for Chihuahua later that day. Jenny always wondered why I didn’t stick around.

So all this is not an indictment on my mother. As I stated before, our mother-son relationship has been complicated because of many things, and many of those things were out of her control. Instead, I bring to you these two instances in my life where the opinion and statements of my mother — a figure with a lot of authority in my life — have led me to experience things that were unsavory for me. Of course, there are many other statements and opinions of hers that have led me to be happy and prosperous, like her opinion that I should go to college. In short, she had authority, my respect, and a lot of experience… So I deferred to her even to my own detriment.

Think of how many times that happens in other instances. We went to war with Iraq because of the opinion and false information from people with a lot of authority. We have people locked up in secret prisons all over the world because of the opinion of national security experts who we dare not question lest we be accused of being traitors and such. If you’re in the healthcare field, God be with you if you choose to go against the opinion and wishes of a physician. Likewise, if you work in government, don’t you dare go against the opinion of politicians.

I mean, you can see where I am going with this. Authority wields a lot of power, and you need to be careful in listening to that authority and in being the authority yourself. There is nothing “rebellious” about asking sensible questions in order to get at the evidence for the directives you’re being given, especially if you’re not in the armed services. (I hear those guys are discouraged from disobeying orders.) Likewise, an effective leader (and parent) explains their decisions and opinion with reasonable terms. Instead of “you’re a hypochondriac,” I plan to tell The Child® something like, “You have a tendency to worry too much about your health when, in fact, you’re a very healthy kid. How about I make an appointment to take you to the doctor as soon as you get out of school?”

You know, something like that? “Because I said so, that’s why!” just doesn’t help anything.
[section][slab_h5][slabtext]”Nothing strengthens authority so much[/slabtext][slabtext] as silence.” [/slabtext][slabtext]- Leonardo Da Vinci[/slabtext][/slab_h5][/section]

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

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