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Rules to Live By

There is so much in this world that we personally have yet to discover. Attempting to see something new or different as often as possible is a worthy goal. It happened once last week while I was scouring local greenhouses, looking for a particular heirloom tomato plant. I am a huge fan of a variety known as “Box Car Willie.” Either I have strange taste or this delicious red fruit is a well-kept secret because they are not easy to find in my area. Last year’s supplier had none when I stopped to inquire, so the search has begun!

As Judi and I prepared to turn into the drive of a local Amish establishment, we had to pause while a two-horse team made a turn at the end of a green field. It is not uncommon to observe horses performing various types of labor in our part of the county – pulling buggies, hay rakes, or plows, for instance. These two fine steeds were providing the horse power for a riding lawnmower. Yep, you read that correctly. A self-propelled machine capable of generating its own power was being escorted around the large lawn by these huge animals, cutting the grass to a nice low height. 

“How does it work?”, you might ask. The farmer puts the mower in neutral, starts the engine, engages the mower blades, hitches it to the horses and drives the animals around the field pulling the gas operated mower behind them. And one more thing – the rubber tires of the mower had been replaced with steel wheels. Apparently, rubber tires can encourage vanity. I really wanted a photo of that moment but Amish aren’t keen on having their pictures taken so I resisted. It seems important to respect others’ deeply held values whenever we can even if we don’t fully understand them.

That incident made me laugh, but the truth is I rather admired the ingenuity. It reminded me that regardless of the community into which we are born, certain regulations or principles are expected to govern our lives; and some of us will endeavor to find a way around them! Some rules may be viewed as universal, but others, like the ones that necessitate this creative riding lawnmower, vary by culture and community. So, while I enjoy electricity provided by public utilities, the Amish may not connect to those lines. I travel from point to point by automobile, whereas they can’t own one. And, in a tough blow to farmers – no self-propelled farm machinery (except that one now occasionally spots a tractor in an Amish field, with steel wheels of course.).  Whatever the culture and its accompanying set of rules, many of us spend a good bit of time trying to find a way around the ones that don’t suit us—those that complicate our progress or seem pointless or that just rub us the wrong way.

If I’m completely honest, I have a love/hate relationship with playing by the rules. Probably connected to the fact I am a firstborn child, I have a respect for authority but I don’t like for people to tell me what I must do. My mother shared with me once when I was a child it was much easier to give me three choices, all of which were acceptable to her, than to tell me what I had to do and then deal with my resistance. I simply don’t care for rules (unless I make them, of course) but once in place I have a hard time ignoring them. Take speed limits, for example. I can appreciate the need to regulate how traffic moves and encourage safety. Still, I’d like to be able for my chosen speed to equal the answer to an equation expressed as (the weight of my foot x my degree of hurry) + my general mood for the day. It’s not that I want to drive fast, but I want to be able to do so without penalty should it ever seem necessary or right. The common wisdom around here is that one can exceed the speed limit by 10 mph without being stopped by law enforcement. I’ve never seen that written in any driver’s education handbook so am a bit suspicious. But even if it is true, my respect for authority usually limits me to only 5 mph over the speed limit, as though that is less offensive than 10!

This aversion to rules isn’t just a case of individuals thinking that the wisdom of the community or the decree of a governmental authority doesn’t apply to us. Even organizations have their own version of this phenomenon. Only there, it is less about ignoring the rules than it is about finding or creating loopholes. From my high school parliamentary procedure days, I recall an option that could create a way around the rule that was interfering with the group’s desires. Called “suspension of the rules,” this tactic allows the group to set aside its normal rules to do something that it could not do otherwise. Among my fellow Quakers who follow a different style of business, we are not beyond deviating from the norm and doing something different if it seems the Spirit is leading in that direction. When we do, we occasionally will be heard to say, “This doesn’t set a precedent.” But . . . it often does! Bending and breaking rules are for individuals, whereas groups set them aside temporarily through governance process. Though the result is basically the same, this has a more orderly, civilized nuance doesn’t it?

Rules have been on my mind lately in part due to recent stories about the war in Ukraine. A frequent complaint is that Russia is attacking civilians, hospitals, schools, and the like. They have been accused of war crimes and of not keeping a truce that would allow civilians safe passage. The reports are disturbing. Interestingly enough, there are rules for this type of thing, namely the international humanitarian law. Those regulations disapprove of targeting non-military groups and structures. Apart from the fact that I’d prefer if we could all avoid military confrontation, those rules make perfect sense to me.

I am more astonished by our surprise at the ignoring of established war protocol than I am the transgressions. As much as I appreciate that someone has tried to establish an etiquette that avoids exaggerating an already barbaric situation, this is hardly an affair where aggressors are likely to be on their best behavior. We’d all hope so, but why should we be shocked that they are not? In the heat of the moment, the sway that rules have on our actions can dissolve in an instant. Remember the 1997 boxing match in which Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear? That’s not a common feature in matches so far as I know. Stress combined with anger or fear can be a lethal combination, particularly when the ones involved view the matter as life-and-death, win-at-all-costs, with their survival on the line. Before we get too righteous in our reaction, let us acknowledge that our own U.S. history is littered with moments where those involved ignored rules and expectations and acted in self-interest. Perhaps our personal histories do as well? Are any of us 100% beyond reproach? Perhaps, but it is a question worth asking in a time when so many standards and norms are being rejected or ignored.

What do we make of this? Rules are our attempt to organize and operate in a manner that best serves the purposes at hand, at least from the perspective of the rule makers. These regulations are intended to have a positive purpose. Like guardrails on a bowling alley, they help prevent winding up in the gutter. That they often seem to restrict like the top button of a tight shirt isn’t, I believe, the result of a rebellious nature – at least for many of us. It is more akin to the cook who can’t strictly follow a recipe as written . . . well, just because. Or women who decide to dash into the men’s room rather than wait in line because . . . it’s empty. As we grow and change, some things no longer fit as they once did. An adjustment may be in order. But when? And by whom? Can it be done unilaterally? When should we continue to abide by the wisdom of the group, even if it doesn’t suit our purposes? Can we do so if doing so violates our sense of justice?

Bent, broken, or suspended, the tendency to find a way around the rules that interfere with our ambitions is widespread, if not universal.  They span the humorous, the practical, and the tragic. Some are harmless; others are life altering. Let us think deeply about the motives and consequences of our actions, especially if we’re about to suspend the rules.

Have any Question or Comment?

2 comments on “Rules to Live By

Root Timothy

Did you find the “Box Car Willie” tomatoes at the Amish establishment?

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Jay Marshall

No. It was a local hardware store nearby last year. Still no luck this year.

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