When Rules Don't Rule

October 05, 2015

Photo courtesy Ryan McGuire

“One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny.”
—Bertrand Russell

I’ve been a good girl all my life. I (mostly) obeyed my parents, got good grades, did my best to fit in and please others. As an adult, I generally follow the rules, even if no one is watching. And while I think it is a good idea to be a law-abiding citizen, rules—especially unwritten, unspoken ones—can be taken too seriously. They can lock us into behaviors and beliefs that aren’t true, don’t serve us, and don’t reflect our deepest values.

Rules can become tyrants. Here’s an example: Last week, I returned a DVD to the library without watching it, thus breaking my unspoken rule: once you check something out, you must read/watch it. When I dropped the DVD into the return slot, I felt a sense of relief and freedom all out of proportion to the act. This made me wonder, what other unspoken rules complicate my life and keep me from the happiness I want?

I know I can be too rigid. What am I afraid of? That once freed from my rules I’ll run wild? Maybe. “Without rules, we may feel more vulnerable as if the looseness and lack of structure will lead us toward defeat,” wrote Leslie Levine in Ice Cream for Breakfast. “But rules can also be constricting, keeping us from stretching or even soaring every once in a while. If we can improvise—make up the rules as we go—it becomes easier to reach a middle ground, a place where rules help us grow and thrive.”

In her book Life Is a Verb, Patti Digh tells a funny story about the time she tried to order toast and a side of avocado slices in the middle of the afternoon at a restaurant and was told by the waiter that it would break all the rules to serve her those things—it was past toast time, and sides were only available with entrees. There are “toast rules”? she wondered.

She wrote, “It’s one thing to acknowledge the absurdity of other people’s rules; it’s another thing altogether to recognize and own the absurdity of the rules we’ve made up (helpful hint: They’re all made up, some so ingrained that we can no longer see they are Toast Rules). So when a rule pops to the surface, see it for the Toast Rule it is, made up to serve some social norm that is itself made up—or to serve the convenience of a waiter, where waiter stands for ‘person’ or ‘group.’”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.” I think this is a useful distinction. I aspire to live by principles like treat other people the way you want to be treated and be kind. These reflect principles I value, that benefit me as well as others. Never return a book or DVD to the library without reading or watching it? Not so much.

Let’s examine our rules. Do they still work and have value? Rules often start with: I can’t or I should. Think twice every time those words start a sentence. We may be bumping up against a rule that no longer serves us.

Levine wrote: “Even our capacity for uncontrollable laughter is somehow diminished by the rules that govern adulthood. Instead of giving ourselves permission to be joyful and do the things that make us happy, we arbitrarily create rules that prevent us from enjoying as much as we can. So instead of lingering in the tub…, we bathe as fast as we can. Instead of celebrating our own birthdays…, we minimize the day and let it pass almost unnoticed. These made-up rules may give us some order in the short term but ultimately shortchange what could be a more fulfilling and fun life.”

What rules do you live by? What rules do you want to break?

“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”
—Katherine Hepburn

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  1. Dear Kathy- very insightful post. I have this rule never wear white before Memorial Day and never after Labor Day...now how silly is this rule-think I might prepare to make an exception and continue to wear white. Thanks for sharing. Have a delightful day. Hugs

  2. Debbie--That's just the kind of rule I was thinking of...one we've followed for a long time and never questioned. Those rules aren't always bad--but it's worth it to think about whether we need them or not.