Rules Are Meant to be Broken

We have all heard the statement, “Rules are meant to be broken.” Like so much in life, there is both truth and untruth in its meaning. Of course, that begs the question, “Does that mean that ‘rule,’ too, is intended to be broken!”

For me, the more apt statement is, “There are exceptions to every rule.” But which rules? There are different levels of external rules, household, society, religious, educational, governmental, etc. Now to add to the complexity of this conversation, not only the spoken/written rules we learn but all the unspoken rules. A therapist friend in Taos always liked to say that children know all the unspoken rules in a home by the time they are four.

Those are rules we learn to conform and fit in, but then how about those rules we place on ourselves. These can lead us to present ourselves in two ways; I will never dress that way again because of all the criticism I received (especially from peers), and I will always dress that way because of all the criticism I received (especially from parents)!

While we always have a choice to conform or not to conform to other’s rules, but there is usually some punishment involved determined by the severity of the breach and the authoritarian level of the rule maker! The discipline we receive can range from time-out to execution!

For most of my life, I was a “color inside the lines” kind of guy. Known rules were comfortable because they gave me a sense of who I needed to be. This pattern was definitely due to my mother, whom I jokingly say hit the trifecta to be a “drill sergeant” disciplinarian, full-blood German, black/white personality, and a Scorpio, loving to be in a position of authority!

For me, life was more comfortable learning the rules as fast as I could and then following them. This was especially true with my mother but extended into most areas of my life. My undergraduate is in engineering with clear delineations of solutions; an I-beam spanning X feet and carrying Y load has about as absolute an answer as you can get. However, when I went into the MBA program in finance, my world was rocked. A finance prof said of a problem, “there are many answers to this question!” Huh?!?! I quickly switched to accounting with their friendly, useful rules!

If we choose to grow and continue to learn about life, at some point, we may start questioning why we follow specific rules, whatever their flavor. I remember another prof in grad school saying that she and all her sisters, like their mother, always cut off the end of a ham before cooking it and finally asked why? Their mom said it was because her oven back then was small, so she had to use a small pan. Even with a larger oven, they all still cut off the end!

So we need to ask ourselves why we do everything we do? Examination and questioning do not just belong in the formal classroom, but also the real-life class. Remember, too, even the best thought out rules do not always apply. Thirty miles per hour may be the perfect speed for a road, but if we need to get to the emergency room to save a life, we are going to break that rule.

Closed systems, whether mechanical or our brains, do not take in new information; open systems do, and they are continually adjusting to new situations. To become more aware, we need to be curious, conscious, present, and be honest in our inquiry. If not, the rules we choose to break may not be for our or society’s benefit.

All this musing on rules came up recently due to a colleague who is just beginning to date again after many years of marriage. Like me, after my divorce, he wants to have a loving relationship. One woman, he thought perfect, told him that she’s not comfortable dating anyone who hasn’t been post-divorce for a few years. A sage rule usually, as we have to undo all our old habits from a prior relationship and learn who we are without another; my friend thought he might stop dating for a while.

While this rule might serve her (and most) well, I reminded my friend that, unlike 99% of the people out on the dating circuit, we had done a tremendous amount of deep self-reflection as part of our education. I was lucky, lucky, lucky, to quickly find a woman that was matching my authenticity, and he might have to date longer. However, to stop dating will probably ensure he does not find someone!

We cannot become our true selves without shedding the rules that have caused us to adapt our true nature to conform with others. Many rules we live by, if scrutinized, only helped us to fit into some group and do not support our being our authentic selves. “Question authority” is a famous slogan attributed to the psychologist Timothy Leary; I would say, “Question rules.”

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