Rules, Consequences, and What’s the Point
by Jennifer Paros
My youngest son walked out of his school the other day. He’d had a rough time earlier. He didn’t go far; just milled around and came back in. His teacher spoke to him about it and he said, “I know, I know, you’ve told me before about the rule. I don’t care!”
She suggested he experience a consequence: lunch detention. That night, he bemoaned rules and told me she had shown him a Rule and Consequence visual:
RULE > DON’T FOLLOW > CONSEQUENCE
and how he had taken out his pencil and modified it.
RULE > DON’T FOLLOW > HAPPINESS > FREEDOM
I couldn’t help but admire his handiwork. However, what he failed to see is that breaking a rule doesn’t inevitably lead to happiness – or freedom. But what I admire about his visual is that he thought to include happiness.
In writing, as in other endeavors, I set rules for myself, unconsciously and consciously, and then proceed to thrive or struggle under them. And the rule under which I suffer is the rule that has, down the pike, sacrificed my genuine happiness at the altar of having to do, be, or have something in order to be okay.
As the week wore on, my son continued the trend of going against the school code of conduct. Time after time he bumped into rules, confirming his hypothesis that there are simply too many. The word from the teachers is that he’d been consistently asking the same question:
What’s the point?
Somewhat stumped, they knew, at least intuitively, nothing they say will satisfy him. For in truth, he is looking for his own answer. He’s asking the right question but of the wrong people. To understand we are free in a world filled with rules of all kinds – personal and public, many not of our own making – we must answer this question for ourselves. The question can seem hopeless, but the answer has the power to return us to our sense of freedom and the fact that we’re always making choices - regardless of our situation.
“Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
In the documentary “This Emotional Life”, there is a profile of Bob Shumaker – who had once spent eight years in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war. He speaks of the torture; how he and the other prisoners communicated through a tapping code; and how, day after day, he planned the house he’d one day build for his family – continually revamping the design. He reflects, “Well, I suppose one way of looking at eight years of imprisonment is to say that’s just wasted time. . . have to put that behind me – but paradoxically. . . I gained something out of this eight years of experience.” According to the program, this view is common amongst former P.O.W.’s, many identifying personal meaning and value in their experience – making their own answers to the question, “What’s the point?” enough to give them peace.
Years ago, I walked out of my house in a fit. I was baking cookies for my son’s class and those cookies seemed to be “ruined” after hours of preparation. I walked through our backyard, out the gate, crazed and huffing along in my flower print apron. Apparently I had thought the point was to make perfect cookies, but that vapid goal could not sustain me. When I finally went back inside, the point became redefined: it had to do with love and giving. And the mental jail in which I’d put myself let go. I felt better, now in service to something that was worthwhile to me.
When I feel burdened by writing, I have forgotten that I am the decider of what the point is. Perhaps one of my rules has led me to the conclusion that the point is to get published, to win an award, to impress, to be prolific or popular, wealthy, or to just get it done or get it right, and these answers – like so many the world might try to provide for my son – do not satisfy or free.
To feel free, to truly want to write or do anything, I have to reconnect to the real point of getting up every day for me. That’s the only answer worth discovering, the one with the arrow pointing to HAPPINESS on my personal visual, the consequence of which I am always willing to live.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.