Opinion. Resist much, obey little by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. Resist much, obey little by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. Resist much, obey little by Hal O’Leary. A lesson in life. Enjoy your holidays, Yareah friends. Art is everywhere!


Man in chains. Photo by George Hodan

One of America’s most influential poets, Walt Whitman, has provided me with my New Year’s resolution from his opus Leaves of Grass: “Resist much, obey little.”  Never has so much wisdom been packed into four little words.  Less for myself than for “We the people,” who seem to have surrendered the greatest weapon against despotism known to man, do I issue a call for a resolution to resist much and obey little.  The weapon to be employed in such a resolution is but the utterance of one simple word, “NO!” When we realize and understand that any oppressive power rests entirely upon the willingness of the oppressed to acquiesce, any command for obedience is no more sustainable than ice on a hot stove.

Please understand that I am not so naïve as to think that the simple utterance of the word “NO” will have no consequence other than the cessation of the offensive demand.  The use of this powerful weapon also carries with it the risk of contempt, ostracism, or even death, as in the extreme cases of Christ, Socrates, Joan of Arc, and more recently Martin Luther King, Jr.  These, along with innumerable others, serve to validate the necessity for “Resist(ing) much, obey(ing) little.”  Admittedly, the potential consequences of resistance to evil cannot be ignored, and it must be acknowledged that a prerequisite for the use of such a simple but formidable weapon is courage, a counter-attack to the would-be despot’s most formidable weapon, the introduction and instillation of fear.  There is no question but that fear is the primary motivating factor in any attempt to establish or alter human behavior.  Finding the courage to counter fear becomes a life-long challenge. The choice of whether to resist or obey in any given situation requires a thorough assessment of the consequences of each decision. Toward this end, it becomes necessary to establish the right or the wrong of whatever consequences may result.

The primary question to be asked and honestly addressed in the establishment of any right or wrong is the effect the decision might have upon the ultimate survival of our species. On the surface, this may seem much too broad a question even to consider in addressing personal problems, but when we realize that as goes the culture, often goes the individual, it becomes obvious that any threat, however singular, small or distant, becomes a threat for all; thus, any act that tends to increase the odds for survival benefits us each and all.

Of course, not every decision one may be called upon to make could be considered a life-and-death situation.  The danger of an individual’s unwise decision could, if recklessly adopted by others, result in a generalized threat to all.  In that respect, John Donne’s adage that “No man is an island” rings oh, so true. Therefore, it would behoove each of us to avoid any act that might bring harm to another or contribute to a pattern of behavior contrary to the interest of a specific culture. 

Should this rationale become our basis for determining right from wrong, any resistance to a wrong would of necessity become the right thing to do; thus, any refusal to resist that wrong becomes itself wrong.  We were pointedly reminded of this concept as early as the eighteenth century, if not before, by Edmund Burke with his famous quotation:

“All that is needed for evil to succeed is for good men to stand by and do nothing.”

Please re-read this and imprint it on your mind. When you are faced with deciding right from wrong, consider, to the best of your ability, what you believe the consequences of your decision might be, make a determination as to whether or not humanity will best be served or harmed by your decision, and then act accordingly.  While this procedure will serve to assist you in making good decisions in even the most trivial of situations, it becomes a veritable necessity in deciding to resist in the face of evil.  Strange as it may seem, finding the courage to act in the best interest of our fellow man, as opposed to any self-interest, may require little more than a reflection from the mirror as we ask ourselves what kind of person we would most like to be.  That, and a reasonable conscience, should suffice in guiding us in the right direction when deciding when to resist or when to obey.  Once the courage is found, the rest is easy.


A lesson that I learned long, long ago

Is something that I think you ought to know:

No matter what this life may have to show,

Should it be something you think is below

A standard over which you’d like to crow,

A standard you would rather not forego . . .

Here’s something that will set your heart aglow:

When peers demand a stifling quid pro quo,

It’s something that you needn’t undergo.

With just one little word you can bestow

Upon yourself a gift to help you grow

Into the man you’d be so proud to know;

The secret is to emulate Thoreau.

Just stand your ground and tell the bastards NO!


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Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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