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Rules and Rascals and the Dialogue Between Them

We all have our own “folk wisdom” about the way the world works. As we live out our lives, we observe things and create hypotheses from them. I suspect that most of this folk wisdom holds at least a grain of truth and a dollop of wisdom.

One of my folk wisdoms goes by the name of “rules and rascals.”

Here’s how it works. Many circumstances in the human condition—particularly the social, political, and religious dimensions—are subject to the interplay of two forces. The rules express the way things are, the conditions at the time, the “shoulds” of our life together. In some cases, the reasons are clear and the rules compelling. Thou shalt not kill is as relevant today as when God handed down the message to Moses millennia ago. In other cases, the rules were established in a completely different time and place, sometimes for reasons now lost to history.

Meanwhile, the rascals are those people who push against the rules, test their validity, and toss out directives that no longer apply or, worse, have destroyed people’s lives. The word rascal is often thought of as pejorative, but not here. Under this definition, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a rascal. So was Gandhi. The rules they confronted absolutely had to come down.

Alas, the “right” or “wrong” of any given rule or rascal is not always as clear as Thou shalt not kill or Dr. King’s mission. Some workplaces, for instance, might push the ideal of collaboration into every practice and procedure. A rascal might push back on that, not by rejecting collaboration utterly, but by pointing out the value of solo work and how the two ideals, working together, might produce a better result in the long run. In such cases, the action of the rascal might modify a good rule to make it better, rather than eliminate an evil practice like segregation.

Here’s the bottom line. Most of the time, in the grand interplay of rules and rascals, we need both.

It is so easy to lose sight of this. In my deepest self, I tend toward the rascal side of the spectrum (and it probably is a spectrum, rather than an either-or). I chafe against rules that seem to make no sense. But then, on occasion, a “rule person” will give me the context for a given rule, revealing to me the value in it. Then I get it. I may even become a defender of that rule.

The problem comes when I forget that we need both: when my mindfulness of this need gets overwhelmed by my frustration or defensiveness or fear. When those forces take over, they prevent me from remaining open to the person on “the other side”…the very person whose perspective I need to hear…the person whose wisdom I could tap in dialogue.

Of course, this lesson extends well beyond rules and rascals. It’s hard to fathom at this point in history—when people on both sides of whatever just want to throttle one another—but Democrats could benefit from perspectives that Republicans can provide. Conservatives can make use of insights that liberals have to offer. None of us has enough perspective on an issue that we can look at “the other side” and say, “I don’t need you.” If, however, we acknowledge that need and approach the other with curiosity and openness, we begin to discover more of the truth—or at least more about the other person—and to build a bond that stretches across divides.

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