I’ll confess at the outset that I am not a fan of rules. I realize that sometimes they are necessary to solve a problem or to create a boundary. They also establish values for a society. But do you unquestioningly live by someone else’s values?
I have a couple of favorite quotes about rules. One is from Patricia MacLachlan’s wonderful children’s book, Seven Kisses in a Row. An aunt who has a rule for everything is babysitting Emma. “You have a lot of rules,” says Emma. “We only have three rules. That’s enough.” The three rules are: (1) Be kind; (2) No kicking or biting; and (3) Any rule can be changed.
In an ideal world, I think the first rule would be the only one we need. If everyone were kind, we wouldn’t need a lot of laws and other rules to govern everyone’s behavior.
What I don’t like about rules takes me to the second quote. Writer Brenda Ueland said, “When we moralize, we set up fixed rules. And we like fixed rules because that ends thinking and we can rest. But there is no resting place down here.”
For many people, rules allow them to stop thinking. Rules make up their conditioning so they can go through life without the stress of having to make value judgments. Someone else has already told them what to do, so why think about it?
People are taught rules as children, and because most kids don’t grow up in homes that are democracies, these rules tend to be non-negotiable and based upon someone else’s values, usually the parents’. Maybe the rules are based upon the values of the parent’s parents, so these rules haven’t changed for a hundred years and probably don’t reflect changes in social mores. Some people accept the rules that they are given without thinking about whether the rules are fair, solve any kind of problem, make any sense whatsoever or are consistent with their own system of values.
Here’s an example. I knew someone in college who, in response to a white girlfriend dating a black man, said, “As my father says, the red bird and the bluebird don’t mix.” Her father grew up in the South, and she was sharing his values with me. This was in Maryland in the mid-70s. Now that she actually knew people who were black, however, why wasn’t she examining what her father said to determine for herself whether there was anything wrong with interracial couples? Let me suggest that it was because she accepted her father’s rules (read: values) and this made it unnecessary to think for herself. (As an aside, that black man went on to have an outstanding career and became famous.)
When we set rules for our children, we should never blindly pass on the rules our parents set for us, no matter how highly we think of our parents. In fact, while many people have a tendency as parents to automatically do what their parents did because that is what they know, this may not result in good parenting, but that is the subject for another blog post.
Is it okay to accept without question seemingly good rules? Let’s say you were taught as a child not to tell lies. You probably learned that a lie is when someone knowingly gives a false answer to a question. If you follow that rule, that makes you an honest person, right?
Not necessarily. Take Maria, for example. She is a married woman, but she flirts a lot when her husband isn’t around. Although her husband doesn’t know this, she friends old boyfriends on Facebook. Eventually, Maria has affair, which lasts a few months but ends before anyone finds out. Maria has been sneaking around behind her husband’s back and has broken her marriage vows, but hasn’t “technically” told any lies to him because he hasn’t asked the right questions. Is Maria an honest person? Not even close!
Maria is on rule-following autopilot, and she uses it as a way to avoid really thinking about her behavior. She considers herself an honest person because she hasn’t told any lies. Of course, because she knows to hide her behavior from her husband, she also knows what she is doing is wrong. But because she has a handy rule that she learned years ago about what lying is, this gives her an excuse to avoid thinking about or actually questioning her actions.
Sound ridiculous? Scenarios like this really do happen when we avoid thinking or questioning our conditioned beliefs and rules. Did President Clinton really think his shenanigans with Monica Lewinsky weren’t “sex” because he didn’t have intercourse with her? If you were taught in church that infidelity means having sex with someone outside of marriage, are emotional affairs okay? Falling in love with someone besides your spouse can be even more damaging to your marriage than casual sex.
The bottom line is that fixed rules often cause people to stop thinking and questioning, which is not a good thing. Sometimes, the rules upon which we base our thinking and behavior are not serving us. We can only realize this when we question our thoughts and beliefs, rather than operating on autopilot.
I can help you examine your beliefs and conditioning. Changing your thinking really can make your life better and happier! Contact me for a free mini-session!