Society has rules and norms which people follow. This is a good thing, most of the time. Traffic rules keep us safe on the road. Manners keep interaction with strangers pleasant as we go about our lives in the world. We teach our children all these rules – don’t stare, say thank you, share your toys, wear shoes, don’t yell when you are angry. Yet while we are teaching our children a strict set of boundaries within which to live, our society also celebrates the rule-breakers.
Some of these rule-breakers deserve celebration. They railed against inequality and oppression. They spoke up, they protested, they organised. They broke the law, they challenged the government, they went to jail. Nellie McClung. Gandhi. Rosa Parks. Oscar Wilde. Caroline Norton. Malcolm X. We cite these rule-breakers as brave souls who gave their time and tears and sweat to break chains and bring greater freedom to the rest of us.
Our culture also celebrates those who broke the rules not to improve the world, but to benefit themselves. Real and fiction, books and movies – Indiana Jones, Al Capone, James Bond, Bonnie & Clyde, Rhett Butler, Hans Solo.
The last 20 years or so has seen an uptick in celebrating the rule-breakers of our society. The modern rule-breakers are disruptors using technology and media to slice through barriers and the ways things used to be. Oprah, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Bezos – we all know these stories. My children have a wider sense of the possibilities for their lives than my generation did.
This is why I was so surprised to witness a somber example of rule-abiding by young people at a restaurant recently. I was having lunch at a charming little spot in a rural village. Tables and chairs were casually assembled willy-nilly outside among grass and garden. The day was blue-skied with fluffy white clouds. It was the sort of Ontario summer weather which gets us all through the bleak days of winter. There was one magnificent tree, casting shade upon a few tables. A young couple arrived wanting lunch, and the one table available was in the sunshine. They didn’t want to sit in the sunshine. They wanted the shade.
They stood and waited for a shaded table to be vacated so they could be seated for lunch. They stood a stone’s throw away from an empty table which could easily have been moved a few feet into the shade. Rather than spending a few minutes and a little effort to move the small table and two chairs, they stood fidgeting and hungry for over 15 minutes, casting longing looks at those of us finishing our meals.
Why? Were they taught by their parents that you don’t move tables in a restaurant? Did they think it was bad manners to ask to move the table? I didn’t ask them. They may not have had the answer. All I know is this: there is a time to break the rules for the benefit of the greater world, and there is a time to break the rules to benefit yourself. What rules determine your life, and are they serving both you and the world?