Rules Are Made For Breaking
I’ve been thinking a lot about rules, likely because we have been playing a whole lot of board games these days. Our family classic is Monopoly. And it doesn’t take long for a minor dispute to erupt about the rules. That FREE PARKING space on the Monopoly board is probably one the greatest debate topics of all time. Many believe that all community cash that is acquired throughout the course of the game gets stored under the free parking square and the lucky person who lands on it is awarded that cash. It almost always is someone who has just sprung themselves from jail, having rolled double fives, to land upon the cash. My daughter Rachel insists, after learning about this ‘rule’ from our family discussions, that this is a brilliant idea.
“Of course we should put the money there!”
And you can probably guess that I am the reason we don’t. You see, I am that person - that person who reads all of the rules and insists that all of the rules be followed without exception. I get yelled at.
And my basic and long-standing defense is - “Here are the rules, written in this booklet that came with the game. There is no cash for FREE PARKING! Now who’s turn is it?”
I was taught that rules are important. Without rules many people are unable to function. Rules make it so that those who break them have a place (out of the game), though I will concede that often the reward for following the rules is absolutely nothing other than the gloating rights that you have for following the rules. Not much, I suppose. But still - rules are absolutely not meant to be broken. Breaking rules leads to chaos and disorder, which are two things I simply don’t tolerate. Rules were important to me growing up. I felt important, being one of those people who, without question or fail, followed the rules. Classroom rules. Movie theater admission rules (I’m talking to you Dulcie, who skipped from theater to theater on one ticket). Rules on medication bottles. Rules of the road. Rules for cooking and baking. There are a whole lot of rules to be followed - and I follow them.
But what has following the rules actually done for me? Is it possible that in my training and commitment to behave, and do what I always thought was the right thing, I have suffered? While following rules has certainly kept me safe from harm, maybe it has prevented me from taking any risks. Risks probably don’t have laid out rules (which is precisely why I can justify taking so few of them over the course of my life). I can fully admit that I have probably missed out on some remarkable things because of my refusal to step away from the known rules to just go out and make my own. It scares me just typing about it.
Rule-following has always allowed me to believe that I was ultimately in control of my life but if I stop to think about it, by following the rules I am allowing others to decide how things should go. Rather than evaluating a situation and making a choice that I feel suits me best, I am taking another person’s word that this is the right way to do it, and I follow them. That works really well with a double chocolate cake from a Michelin-starred pastry chef’s cookbook, but it probably shouldn’t be standard procedure for other more important decisions. Why should I blindly follow someone else’s rules? That sure does give other people a whole lot of power over me.
Following the rules has been a great way for me to learn how to get things done. Martha Stewart has phenomenal rules for cleaning the house. Alton Brown has rules for the perfect soft-boiled egg. And Shonda Rhimes has her rules for creating a character in a television pilot. I can learn a whole lot from them, and so many others who have found success and have shared their secrets. But I can also see how I have leaned on the rules of others a bit too much. How I have silenced my own independent creative voice in order to hear the voices of others that I trust. So, in essence, following the rules has elevated the rules and words of others and diminished my own. That can’t be good.
And while following rules has certainly kept me out of trouble, with regards to the law and community norms and relationships with the people around me, following the rules has also trapped my own instincts and my belief that my opinion matters. I don’t necessarily question things that are laid out as standards - I just do them. I don’t challenge the status quo, even if I believe it to be fundamentally flawed. I don’t speak up when something is not completely fair or completely to my liking because I don’t want to break any rules. I know I am creative and smart but I don’t show that side of myself when I just follow along without a second thought.
Hmm...rules. What have you done to me?
Clearly, my opinion of rules is evolving in real-time. I will always agree that rules have a proper place. Like, stop signs and red lights. I would never consider not wearing a seatbelt. I will never, not ever, not eject the DVD before turning off the DVD player - those are the rules. To me, some things are just not optional. But having a more balanced approach to following the rules that have been written might help me see that rules were in many ways made to be challenged and changed and adapted in order to meet everyone’s needs. And the WHO behind the rules certainly matters. Law enforcement rules versus YouTube tutorials.....there is a difference. And not following them is not a sign of a fatal flaw but a sign of just a life well-lived. I might feel a deeper sense of satisfaction in challenging the rules. I might feel more powerful. I might feel more creative and strong. I might even feel like I have been heard.
I’ll continue to explore my relationship to the rules that define the world around me. But in the meantime, some things will never change. There is still no FREE PARKING when we play Monopoly at my house. Sorry, Rachel - that would just be going too far.