On Rules


“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, III.i)

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (Emerson, “Self-Reliance”)

“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” (H.L. Mencken)

“But people don’t do such things!” (everything by Ibsen)

My therapist, to her credit, has the self-discipline to control her facial expressions and body language whenever I say things that are, obviously to both of us, absurd.

So when I mention that I’ve lately been accused of acting as though the rules don’t apply to me, she nods sagely, reaches for her pen and notepad, and focuses intently on adding to her abundant session notes – gestures I’ve come to interpret as her tactful way of suppressing the urge to guffaw uproariously and ask “Have these accusers of yours ever met you??”

—Because we’ve both had to endure hours of me anxiously perseverating over every rule, convention, and policy that brushes up against my life, and which I fretfully try to obey, even as I’m flinching and chafing at their touch. Far, far from thinking that the rules don’t apply to me, I go to therapy because somewhere along the line I became convinced, in the perverse self-centeredness of the incorrigible neurotic, that ALL of the rules apply to me, or should, or someone else thinks they should, or I think that someone thinks that I should think that they should. Not that any of that obsessive thinking guarantees that I (can/will/do) follow all of the rules, and not that all of the rules that govern my daily life are the ones that my shadowy accusers, sadly lacking in imagination, would expect. Nevertheless, far from leading a lawless, ungoverned, ungovernable existence, the problem of how, and whether, to follow rules (and what will happen to me if I can’t/won’t/don’t follow them) occupies much of my waking conscious thought.

There are three categories of rules (because of course there are rules for taxonomizing rules)

  1. I think we can all agree that some rules are necessary, beneficial, even inarguable, such as those governing gravity, etiquette, and grammar; plus all the guiding commandments, shared by major religions, ethics, and traffic law, to do with not damaging, maiming, or destroying what belongs to others, like portable property, bodies, feelings, or ecosystems. The problem for me here is not adhering to these rules myself; on the contrary, I take these rules—rules—so seriously that I suffer agonies of indignant distress when they’re flouted and abused by others. That language, traffic, social interaction, and our relationship to the natural world all *work* so much better, so much more pleasingly, when we’re all consensually-organized with the same principles, a literal or figurative grammar for life –  seems so obvious, that those who violate these rules are, at best, to be pitied and offered help to overcome their incapacity, or, at worst should be ostracized, cast out, put somewhere out of harm’s way, where their depraved indifference to the welfare of others can be contained. …. which remediation doesn’t happen nearly enough (as in: at all) leaving me a miserably-helpless witness to the unnecessary chaos and violence that seems to characterize the world.
  2. As if that’s not enough, then there are the idiosyncratic, personalized rules of my day to day existence (which I think should govern everyone else, but which I’ve come to realize are unenforcible beyond the confines of my own fraught inner life). The pricks against which I kick are, as often as not, my own invention, or (so I’ve been told) superstition, or an exaggeration of some punctilio that doesn’t matter a whit to anyone as much as it matters to me. As a small sample:
    • You must finish what you start – which is all very protestant and productive until it becomes compulsive. This rule got me through grad school, and got me married. It’s also why I hated grad school, and certainly, if ironically, contributed to me not being married. This rule also doesn’t serve me well when it comes to boxes of chocolates or doughnuts (see a related rule about avoiding asymmetry and uneven quantities). The inverse (perverse) hazard with this rule is that if finishing whatever it is you’re starting involves risk (to body, career, bruised and delicate heart) then you can obviate that risk by simply becoming paralyzed, hence never starting the thing in the first place.
    • Or: You have to eat dinner before dessert, unless it’s an afternoon cookie, which then has to be consumed during the time of day recognized as “day,” because if you eat it at say 5pm, that’s obviously evening, and hence roughly the province of dinner, and to eat a cookie right before a salad is not only to invoke the ancient curse (“you’ll spoil your appetite!”) but is an inversion of the natural order of things, and, simply, anarchy.  – Until dinner is over, and then it’s time for desserts involving sugar, but never anything savory from the conclusion of dinner to the start of breakfast – which meal is, of course, more in the realm of sweet – unless it’s brunch, and then you’ve just fallen through the looking glass of culinary surreality. Brunch, as you can imagine, makes me a little stressed. The combination of pineapple on pizza is an unthinkable abomination.
    • Or: You must not backtrack. You must be active and burn calories. You must not spend money frivolously on things like cabs or subway tickets. Taken separately, each rule might be innocuous enough; but combine them into one tyrannical diktat, and even the most banal trip to work or gym becomes a small military campaign, and every holiday a grueling forced march. This meta-rule requires spending hours pouring over maps of the smallest of hamlets – like Paris or San Francisco – to plot elaborate peregrinations, from every must-see museum to culturally-representative bakery to macabre guidebook oddity, in 12-hour circuits of 20 kilometers or more, which originate and terminate at, but cannot include, the hotel, until the circuit is actually complete, by which time you’re faint and footsore and kind of hating Paris or San Francisco, not to mention yourself.
    • And, variously: It’s bad luck to let pennies lie. If you spill salt, you have to toss some over your shoulder, wherever you are, including crowded public transit. If you don’t carry gear for every weather or health eventuality, the one thing you’re not kitted out for will be the thing that leaves you wet, bedraggled, overheated, hypothermic, or learning the words for “rash” and “ointment” in multiple languages as you negotiate the health care systems of multiple countries. If you see the first star of the night, or have birthday candles to blow out, you *have* to make a wish, BUT the wish has to be utterly stripped of any actual desire that Fate could trace back to you. And as has been well-codified by tales of fishermen, cobblers, idle princesses, and that ghastly story about a monkey’s paw, you must never, ever, give shape through words, to other people, or inside your own head, to things that you really want to be true, such as “this love-interest will return my affections!”; “that stab of pain I felt does not mean that I just tore something that is vital to my ongoing athletic performance and mental health!”; “this article that I’ve been hiding under my bed will get published by the first editor I show it to, thus opening the door to writerly success and hitherto unprecedented, non-neurotic, artistic self assurance!” That is, everyone knows you must NEVER make a selfish wish or one that seems benevolent but can have disastrous consequences because obviously you’ll invoke the wrath of malign and capricious supernatural powers.
  3. Finally (no delusions here, there’s nothing finite about this list), there’s the boundless morass of rules that are invoked as policies or guidelines, or (ghastly) assessable outcomes, which hold sway over our professional and personal lives with Newtonian rigor, even as they exhibit quantum capriciousness: uncertain, unpredictable, refusing to hold still long enough to be measured, grasped, or challenged. These are rules that might be enshrined in handbooks and conduct codes and goal statements; they might have the status of lore, that which doesn’t need to be documented because vague, paranoid fear has far more oppressive power than any mere bullet point in a memo. These are the rules which cause degrees of symbolic violence, where arbitrary differences of power and belonging are given the status of natural facts. These are the rules that are simply The Done Thing, common sense, taken for granted. And these are the rules that make me truly a little nutty: a deep-seated impulse to be obedient and win approval compels me to follow them; a streak of contrariness – orneriness – compels me to question them; some lapse in my youth or childhood renders me incapable of following them with docility or even good grace; at which point the mania to Stay Out of Trouble kicks in, but not sufficiently to keep me in line, just enough to make me agitated that though I want to want to comply, I just can’t/won’t/don’t.

This last is the category of neo-liberal, industrialized, capitalist, life: 9-5 schedules; dress codes; pretty much any policy or habit formulated for the perpetuation of a bureaucracy; acting one’s age; several levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; and, in fact, most things that we’ve been taught ought to occur on figurative pyramids, ladders, escalators, or scales, like the acquisition of property, career goals, sexuality, or the conduct of relationships.

I’m a pragmatic person, really, and, as we’ve established, a bit compulsive and classically neurotic, which means that since childhood I’ve been very good at following these rules, bending my own will to do The Done Thing in exchange for whatever phantasm of a reward is on offer: money, promotion, the relief (comfort!) of having all the levels of all the pyramids, scales, and ladders in place – to the extent that I’m now in a position in life where I’m supposed to formulate, perpetuate, and enforce them for others. Sometimes people even ask me for advice about how they can follow the rules as well as I do, which makes me feel, perversely, simultaneously gratified (I’ve managed to Stay Out of Trouble!) and disappointed with myself. Because the big promise of doing The Done Thing is that sooner or later, all the things will be Done, and you don’t have to keep doing them anymore – which is all, of course, nonsense, because the giant panopticon of our lives ensures that if it seems like the world is running out of things for us to DO, our internalized sense of shame and fear of being caught not Doing fabricates some new item to add to our existential To-Do list. These rules are the instructions for carrying out discipline, that is to say, of  ensuring that society keeps functioning by keeping us all preoccupied with Staying Out of Trouble. Because, as the ethicists remind us (now on major broadcast television and streaming), if we’re ever tempted to not Do the Done Thing, we can test it: if everyone stopped doing that thing (or if everyone decided to do whatever harebrained anti-social anarchic thing is in question) what would happen to society? Answer: society would fall apart. Fall. Apart. People Don’t Do Such Things – except some do, and while occasionally they get slapped down for their impertinence, sometimes they actually shift the collective notion of what is done, what must be done, to what could be done…and the planet keeps turning, and everyone is actually better for it, and wonders why no-one did something sooner.

As much as the world falters with the rules of category #1, the more I’ll champion them. These rules are the the mechanism by which we meet our obligations to one another and our poor planet, and far from asserting freedom by flouting them, we make everything worse for one another (unless you’re trying to do clever things with gravity, in which case, that’s cool). And as I get older, I become more and more fond of the rules in category #2, because they’re just me, and I’m learning to be fonder and more patient with myself – which has the totally predictable consequence of allowing me to be more lax with some of my stricter dictates (but not the ones about pizza or making wishes – if you think you can take chances with either, then when the punishing Fates come knocking, I don’t know you). 

But the rules of category 3 are just so much oppressive brainwashing, and we all need badly to be deprogrammed.

Doing that work on yourself is hard, as our therapists’ copious, patient note-taking could attest. If you’ve been well-indoctrinated to ensure that you Stay Out of Trouble, it’s hard to believe how living life in Trouble could be advisable, let alone navigable. Where’s the safe path between foolish consistency and living in a box in an alley??

Trying to answer that question (live it) is an ongoing project. Perhaps one first step any of us could take is to catch ourselves: if we’re upset when someone breaks one of our category 3 rules, before we point, whisper, and accuse: “who do they think they are, acting as though the rules don’t apply to them?” ask ourselves, “where did I ever get the idea that the rules have to apply to me?” 

And before we shun, or enforce, or inform, thinking, “But people don’t do such things!” we could challenge ourselves:

“I wouldn’t do such a thing…but it might be fun if I could.

And I can.

I will.”

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