Habitual rule-breakers always stressed me out — the sign says “Do Not Trespass,” so don’t trespass, right? What did they think they were going to find in there, an entrance to the Ministry of Magic? A golden ticket? What was the point? Disobedience for its own sake never made any more sense to me than blind submission. Either way, you aren’t thinking. Rules, for better or worse, define the borders between our delicate civilization and the wilderness surrounding us, between our tenuous self-control and the wilderness within us.
I am the only child of a fifth-grade-teacher-turned-attorney and a high school principal. I grew up with a lot of rules. My parents were divorced and their philosophies of discipline diametrically opposed, but the message was essentially the same: “I am paying attention. I care about your safety, your friends, your education, your decisions. I care about what kind of person you are.” My mother’s rules had a practical angle –she favored job charts, natural consequences, and behavior contracts. My dad was more interested in my spiritual development, so a lot of his discipline centered around showing up for God. It didn’t matter that they were different … both methods translated into love, so following their rules made sense, like accepting love makes sense. Why wouldn’t I?
Of course I didn’t. I went home after school like I was supposed to, but then I left my backpack by the door — sometimes outside– and turned on the stereo and/or the TV and/or the oven. Maybe I mixed ingredients for chocolate chip cookies. Then I grabbed a wooden spatula or a whisk, put in my Terence Trent D’Arby tape, stood on the back of the couch in the living room, and sang “Wishing Well” a couple of times. Then I called three different friends, talking to each one for at least 20 minutes and stretching the telephone cord down the hall and up the stairs. After that: cookies and a nap in front of the T.V. Around 5:00, I ordered a pizza that I paid for with quarters from my step-dad’s change jar. By 6:15, my mom came home from work and asked how homework was going (it wasn’t), whether I had practiced my clarinet (I hadn’t), and what sounded good for dinner (nothing — I was already full of pizza and cookies). I never tried smoking, I didn’t ever drink, I didn’t cheat on tests or get in fights, but I also didn’t follow the rules.
To become a whole, self-aware human being, I had to break some rules.
Would my life have been better if I had? I guess it might have been smoother during adolescence. Following all the rules would have earned me more consistent grades and approval from my parents. But following all the rules would also have kept me from taking risks, which is how I really got to know myself. It was my parents’ job to introduce the limits when I was little, but my job to define them as I grew. Ultimately, only I could decide how far I was willing to go, what I was willing to risk, and what (or who) was worth it. To become a whole, self-aware human being, I had to break some rules. I had to crack open and examine the standards I was given and decide what to keep, reject, or fix. Until then, neither rebellion nor obedience could have purpose.
A few years ago, while I was sitting by the window in my family room, a doe left the path her family usually took across the back of our property. She picked her way across the lawn, littered with my children’s bubble wands and hula hoops, and stepped right up to my window, where she stood watching me from about three feet away. I concentrated on sitting still so she would stay. She had risked something to be so close to me and I knew my job was to make that safe for her. She had broken the rules for some unfathomable reason and now here we were: two girls, two deer, two animals crossing the border between civilization and wilderness. I was the wilderness for her and she was the wilderness for me.
I still follow more rules than I break. I wait my turn, I read recipes, I leave private property alone. Yet the world needs rebels too. We need the border-crossers. Because if we must crack open each life for the sake of our own humanity, then certainly the world needs the same treatment for the sake of our collective humanity. We need the rules, yes, the civilization and the self control, however fragile. But more than that, we need the wilderness –all around us, within us, so we remember how little stands between us.