The Art of Breaking Rules
Do not break rules if you can't shoulder the consequences
Rules are neither good or bad; they are useful. Without rules, the universe would be one chaotic sludge of directionless and purposeless energy.
We often think of the common law when referring to rules, but rules are beyond that. A classroom code of conduct that teaches kindergarteners to sit quietly while the teacher reads is a form of rule. Rules can also be a tool of nature, such as the gravitational constant on Earth (i.e., what goes up must come down accelerating at a rate of 9.8 m/s^2). Unspoken psychological reactions, such as feeling hurt when we find out that we’ve been lied to, are also rules—rules of human nature.
Rules are the boundaries that separate the known and the unknown, the familiar and the unfamiliar; it creates spaces where we take refuge when we are overwhelmed. For example, when you’re lost in a foreign country, the first thing you do is follow the local rules—the traffic signs, etiquettes, and cultural norms. This provides you with at least a bit of safety by giving you some sense of certainty around what to expect. Rules can help you blend in when necessary, for conformity is a protective armor.
But rules can also be stifling.
Why we follow rules
When we tell children to ‘follow the rules’, what we’re actually trying to do is save them from the trouble of having to deal with the consequences of transgressing social or cultural norms. Obedience is one thing, but the underlying motivation for teaching such obedience is so that they can avoid social-cultural punishment and ostracism. In other words, we want to save our children from suffering, because the fate of a pariah is irredeemably lonely.
After all, isn’t that what love is? Saving each other from preventable and unnecessary amounts of suffering?
The key word in this definition of love is “unnecessary”, because suffering, aggregately speaking, is unpreventable.
“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”
— C. S. Lewis
If we are to have free will, we must be fallible. Suffering is the promise that we have the volition and ability to change our circumstances, for better or for worse. Nested in free will is the possibility of both humiliating failure and glorious success.
To get rid of suffering is to muffle the chances of failure, but it also rids the possibility of growth. A social pariah may just be the earliest sign of a messiah.
Rules for breaking rules
1) Know why the rule exists and imagine what the world would be like without it.
By default, always follow the rules. It keeps you safe and maximizes your chances of making the right moves. There’s nothing wrong with being safe. Everything exists for a reason—either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. When you don’t know what’s going on from the bird’s-eye view, follow the traffic and don’t trespass. (A good analogy of what this means).
Try changing the way you think about rules: You don’t have to follow the rules, you get to follow the rules. Having rules that are just and protective is a privilege. Good rules are a gift; they are the walls of Eden that keep us sheltered from the unknown dangers out there. To be able to follow rules—that is, to have rules that you can follow—is a blessing; rules are like a map of reality, they teach us how to behave. If the world is one big forest, be glad that you have been given some sort of map.
To the part of our soul that loves freedom, rules feel like an insult to our pride. But the story of the golden calf reminds that we become slaves to our passions when left unchaperoned—and there’s nothing freeing about that. When left to our own shortsighted judgement, we are quick to worship qualities that are beneath our civilized way of being. This old Hebrew story tells us about how the ancients felt regarding the degeneration of society when we are left to our own devices, without rules that regulate us to raise our standards. After all, Moses was given “The Ten Commandments,” not Recommendations.
2) Know when it is necessary to break a rule.
Not all rules are equal; some are meant to protect and help us while others limit us. Many of us, for example, may have been raised by caretakers who prevented certain types of explorations because they were overly cautious, didn’t want to deal with the hassle that comes with children’s mistakes, or both. As a result, many of us may have a fear of breaking the rules because we were discouraged from venturing outside our safety zone.
“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”
— Richard Branson
While some are afraid to break the rules, others believe that rules are meant to be broken and that it’s the only way to make things happen. Some approach life like everything is forbidden unless granted permission, always asking ‘can I?’ instead of ‘what if?’. Others don’t have any of this so-called learned helplessness and think that everything is allowed unless it’s explicitly prohibited.
The problem with a rigid, binary approach to rules is that it divides people — you are either a conformist or a rebel. A ‘sheep’ or an individualist. An activist or a traditionalist. A liberal or a conservative. Again, rules are neither good or bad; they are useful. And not all rules are equal; sometimes, it’s okay to break the rules. Not randomly, but with a purpose. Choose to break the rules that limit a higher purpose, not just because you don’t like them. Last but not least:
3) Be sure that you are able to handle the consequences of breaking the rule in number 2. If not, follow 1.
Rule-breaking is a form of power, and with great power comes with great responsibility. Breaking rules—that is, leaving what is safe, conforming, and venturing into the unknown—comes with consequences that weigh on you and possibly those around you. You’re about to break the surface of a still pond; are you able to shoulder the changes you make, good and bad? Are you able to take credit for the aftermath it may bring to everyone around you?
Do not break rules for the sake of being a contrarian; conformity isn’t always stupid and rebellion isn’t always smart. Have a proper reason and be certain that you are able to handle the consequences. And last but not least, you are only allowed to break the rules when you have mastered them and understood why they exist.
“The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
What’s legal isn’t always what’s ethical. What’s righteous isn’t always what’s lawful. Ultimately, do not let the tail wag the dog. The best rules do not restrict us but instead facilitate our goals and make for fuller, freer lives.
All the best & until next time,
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
— Mark 2:27
Thanks for reading Pluripotent! There’s good stuff on the way…I’ll let you know when it’s here 💌 If you have once made a pledge, I appreciate you very much :)