wise by eyes; fools by rules

Posted: October 30, 2012 in rules
Tags: , , , , , ,

When the heat from lava began to melt the bottoms of our shoes, we knew it was time to head for cooler ground. We were hiking the Kilauea volcano on the big island of Hawaii, and the black lava field we were making our way through at dusk was filled with little rivulets of lava, break outs and pop ups.

I looked around for a park ranger —  none — and thought, “Should they even allow us to walk out here?” You’d expect a rule, a national park rule, to protect us from the fire, a verbal fence, maybe even a real one, to keep us from being stupid. There was none.

I was suprised. I live in a world full of rules and  make up a few myself now and then.

“Take my arm,” I said, and guided her hand to grip my bicep like a hand rail. Then my daughter and I stepped out into the street. I often do this with her often, because she is disabled and unsteady, and also unobservant. Brain damage. When you are brain-damaged, rules help. They take the place of thinking. They protect.

“The deposits go in this tray,” I said, “the bills in this tray, and the treasurer’s paperwork goes here.” I was explaining to one of the office staff  our new system of organizing financial paperwork. Rules, scripted behavior, categories — they work to keep from things getting lost, to keep order, to prevent bad accounting. Rules organize us. Rules are the magic wand whereby we zap chaos into order. But they can do more than that.

“I’ll do the dishes,” I said, “since you cooked.” Usually I don’t even have to say it. It’s a tacit rule, often unspoken but fully operational in my family, “The cook shall not do the dishes.” Rules, about who does the dishes  — they tend to make for good relationships; they may even make things fair — when followed. They other night my wife cooked and did the dishes.  I thanked her as I headed out the door, on the run. She said that she wanted to do the all this. I let her, want to, and do it —  I let her break the rule.

There are lots of good reasons to have rules, for protection, for order, for good relationships, but there are also some fine reasons not to live by them.

One reason involves the distinctly idiosyncratic nature of people and life.

When the mom didn’t want to move her preschooler to the kindergarten class because she believed that her little one was not socially ready to move up, then we, as leaders of the organization, gave the mother and child respect, and relief from the “promotion” rule in play. The little one stayed where she felt safe. That’s good. Organizations with no flexibility, without a brain, without the eyes to see that it is best to do something different in a particular case, become oppressive and harmful to unique personalities.

Wise by eyes; fools by rules.

Sometimes I think that we have ruined the world with bad rules, rules about what women can and cannot do, rules about what men can and cannot do, rules about what is spiritual and what is not,  rules about what certain racial groups can and cannot do, rules about who can live where and who can do what, how, and when and with whom and for how long!

The development of civilization is the multiplication of rules. Many of those rules began with what was thought to be protection, but in time became brutal oppression, for instance, the tacit, long-standing rule that women must present themselves as both attractive and submissive to men, whatever the personal cost to themselves and their children.

It’s estimated that something like 40,000 new laws went into effect in the United States in 2012, for example, the 100 watt incandescent light bulb can no longer be manufactured. I suppose that’s good, to save energy, but at the heart of the issues is the need to promote and preserve good thinking. If I can see for myself that the fluorescent bulb is cheaper and longer lasting than the incandescent bulb, I will choose to replace mine under my own volition and energy. Consumer choice ultimately rules the markets. Consider the black market that always exists for what people really want.

Often common sense and love will do just a nicely as a pack of rules, usually better. The problem with rules is that they don’t much motivate people. The value in thinking is that once you decide, with your own observation and good thinking, that a course of action is good, then you will be motivated to carry that thinking out. Rules require, but visions inspire.

When Jesus himself spoke about the many laws of the Jews, he reduced them all to two, really to one — love. Love God, love your neighbor. Love, he said, was the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets.

For Jesus, love decimated all rules but itself. The religious people didn’t like that. Neither did the government. They still don’t. Governments and religions love rules. They use rules to control people. They use rules to maintain power. They use rules to opperess. But love doesn’t control others;  it certainly doesn’t oppress. it sets people free.

I have a fondness for a few rules, especially the ones I make up, like don’t eat all the ice cream before I get a bowl. And I certainly like it when people stop at red lights and obey speed limits. It keeps me safer.  I live by a lot of rules, as we all do,  but many of the rules of the organizations that organize our lives increasingly seem to me to be hot beds of irresponsibility. People let rules do their thinking for them. People blindly follow rules that harm other people and ruin everyone’s opportunities to develop.

Too many rules, too fiercely enforced, can keep people from  learning from their mistakes, from suffering  the consequences of their bad choices, from learning  for themselves and from trying new, good things. We need some rules, but I much prefer that we promote more good observing, some fine analysis, some clear thinking, some exceptions to the rules when that works best, and a bit more taking personal responsibility for life without being forced to do so by rules.

To be really honest, I really don’t so much care for rules and I don’t like policing other people when they break them. I much prefer rule-free relationships, and far above law, I’ll stand with Jesus, and hold high the banner of love.

And I like it too, when I get a chance to gawk freely,  even with some minor risk, at the fiery red and orange glow of the beautiful, dangerous lava. Then I know I’ve lived a little.

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