The Lines

How do you feel about colouring within the lines?  What about thinking outside the box?  What about stopping at a red light?  Waiting your turn?  Seizing an opportunity?

It's complicated.  Chances are, you're some kind of mix between following the rules and going your own way.  Don't worry.  I'm no psychologist, but I think that's probably healthier than either extreme.  Still, these distinctions and the conflicts that arise when individuals disagree on the approach to any given situation can cause all kinds of trouble.

For any society to function, there must be rules, and they must be obeyed.  Since prehistoric times, people have grouped together for protection and to combine their skills and strength.  It's just easier to survive when you don't have to do everything on your own.  But actions like hogging all of the mammoth meat or bludgeoning Grog because you want to steal his wife have a way of eroding the foundation of trust that makes a group function.  Everyone is at risk when rules are broken.  Humans have an innate sense of fairness.  So, societies need rules, and members of societies need to have a willingness to abide by them.

BUT

For any society to progress, there must be someone willing to go beyond the boundaries.  Doing things the same way you have always done, or following unjust rules can, at best, stagnate an endeavor.  At worst, it will destroy a society, rotting it from the inside.  We need to be able to break the rules when it is helpful to do so.

Certainly, all creative masterpieces are the result of reaching beyond what has gone before.  An artist must think as an individual to create an original, unique work.  Does that mean that the best work comes from those with no training in classical techniques or those with no knowledge or reverence for the past?  Of course not.  While untrained artists can produce impressive work, it's not the lack of experience that appeals.  In fact, that spirit of risk and rebellion works best when you know what you're rebelling against.

The typical argument from children and teens when their spelling or grammar is corrected is that those things don't matter as much as what they have written.  They're right.  Content and message are always the most important part of writing, on a fundamental level.  However, that doesn't justify abandoning the rules of writing.  What makes a reader struggle to understand your content and message detracts from that content and message.  Still, every writer breaks the rules.  EVERY WRITER.  Even those who treasure the language, who routinely correct others' grammar, and who cringe at abuses in spelling.  There are just times when breaking the rules or inventing an unconventional word is the right thing to do.

In the United States, we have a particularly confused relationship with the rules.  Rebellion is part of our national character.  We're raised on stories of the acts of rebellion that won our independence from England.  We lift up the individual, and the rogue hero who goes his own way to pursue truth and justice is a staple of our books and movies.  Yet, our democratic society cherishes the idea of consensus, of "majority rules."  We band together because we agree on certain principles (though if you dig in to define those principles, you find that varies a great deal more than most think.)  Those who don't follow our ways aren't part of "us."  There's often a strong idea about what we are to do, our rituals and symbols, and we have disdain for those who don't follow our rules.  For all our love of novelty and individualism, Americans are often slow to change and surprisingly intolerant of difference.  I was going to list some examples here, but I'm sure a quick reflection on recent news stories will reveal dozens of those examples, times when Americans chanting for change have rankled at the idea of it.

I suppose that's a human thing, and forgivable.  We all want change to be on our own terms.  We all admire the rebel when we aren't personally inconvenienced by his rebellion.  It's probably never going to change, but it's a tendency we should be aware of.  The truth is, we need both- rules and rebellion, tradition and change.  We need to be conscious of these conflicting impulses and evaluate each instance with that understanding and the greater good in mind.

So, when we praise our children for their individualism, let us also encourage cooperation and tolerance.  When we feed their ambition, let us also feed their selflessness and compassion.  When we teach our children to colour within the lines, let us also encourage them to see what beauty comes from escaping the lines now and then.

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