I’d like to share some thoughts on the relationship a man has with rules throughout his life. How do we first encounter rules? What is the difference between a rule and a principal? What is the mark of a mature man in this context?
Children start out without any rules or sense of boundaries, possibly without a sense of self. But they soon start to develop a sense of cause and effect in the world, and with that they start to figure out the difference between themselves and the rest of the world. This is shortly followed by an awareness of other people as distinct beings.
As part of this differentiation process, children become intensely interested in exploration and pushing at boundaries. They are seeing what they can effect, how far they can go, and what other people will do when certain things happen. This is when we start to teach them rules (and they start to learn some unspoken rules on their own). The child’s relationship with rules is not value-based. The rules just are, and they determine the things you can get away with. Children instinctively need this kind of boundary to navigate the world, which for them is full of new and unknown things. The stronger the rule (or the fear of being caught breaking it) the more the child will follow it. Even when they push the boundaries, the amount they push is determined by where they think the line is. They will also get very offended if someone else breaks a rule and isn’t caught, and is therefore getting away with something they haven’t gotten away with themselves. Hence the tendency of young children to go running to authority figures to enforce the rules.
As the children get older and become teenagers and young adults, their relationship with the rules changes. At this point we realize rules are just made by people. We start to challenge some rules again, but not in the same way. It becomes tied up with identity. Rules made by people we don’t like, we may stop following or actively break as an act of subversion. We may experiment with different behaviors and ideas, or try new things. This is exploratory just like the experimentation of the younger years. But this time it is a social exploration rather than a physical one. We want to see who will accept us and who will reject us depending on how we act. The great paradox of teen experimentation – that they are trying to be rebels and still end up all acting the same to be accepted – can be understood in this way.
This is often very transactional – teens and young adults can be as rigid and emphatic in their own way as children in their outspoken belief that “this is just how things are” or “this is the way the world works.” Part of this is their desire to have the world figured out so that when they are on their own, they can succeed. They want there to be a ‘right way’ to do things that will make everything ok in the big scary world. They can become very hurt when things don’t go their way. This is often accompanied by cries of “what did I do wrong?” “I did what I was supposed to do!” “This isn’t fair!”
Many people remain stuck in this phase, which looks more and more narcissistic if a person doesn’t grow out of it. It starts to look like a sense of entitlement, or like whining. How many times have you seen an adult have to remind a teenager or college student that the world is inherently unfair and always will be?
That’s because mature adults have realized and accepted some important facts about life. One, that there is more to people than outward appearance and rule following. We know these things are important, but it’s not everything. Just because a person professes to the same beliefs or group as us doesn’t make them worth knowing. Or vice versa for strangers – just because they don’t, doesn’t mean we might not like to be their friend. Two, that some of your identity must come from yourself, not others. People can be friends or respect each other without having to copy each other in every detail of behavior or viewpoint. Three, we also know that nothing is guaranteed, but that what we do still matters. Doing things well may make a difference in outcome. But you can still do everything right and fail, and there may be no one to blame. It just happened. Or people can sometimes break the rules, be terrible people, and suffer no consequences.
Properly integrating these ideas leads to becoming a principled man. A principal is higher than a specific rule – not to say please and thank you, but to respect people and show gratitude; not to avoid saying mean things, but to make people feel welcome. A principled man knows his own values and acts on them. He does so in the hope that they will make the world a little better, but in the knowledge that it won’t always work, and without complaining about the unfairness of the world when there are setbacks.
This will actually make him less of a rebel in most circumstances than young people. He will normally follow social rules because he is more sensitive to offending people, making them uncomfortable, or disrupting things for everyone else. He doesn’t make trouble without a good reason and a clear goal based on his principles. On the other hand he may be much more willing to break a norm or rule than the teenager or college student in cases where his principles are violated. He can do this because he is more comfortable with being alone in his position and is not tying it to a need for acceptance. His rebellion may also be more constructive since it is likely to include a more mature approach to discussing ideas with others and attempts to change rules within the system rather than just ignoring them.
If you’re interested in these thoughts you should ask yourself some questions. If you have a coherent value set, what is it? Why do you follow it? Are you uncompromising about it, or do you recognize that life can get messy? How much does it scare you to be seen as disagreeing with a commonly held stance? Do you expect to get something out of following your values, or is following them its own reward?