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Playing by the rules

October 20, 2015 - Betsy Bethel
Imagine this hypothetical situation: It's a rainy or snowy day. You're bored. You decide to go old-school and start digging around in the closet for a board game. Nothing you pull out has all the pieces, except the chess set (probably from lack of use). You get out the board and all the pieces. You check the box for the rules. No rules. You don't remember how to play. (Work with me here and pretend there is no Google or YouTube.)

You have two choices: You can give up on playing the game, or you can make up the rules as you go. The first option leaves you in the same bored predicament and causes you potentially to miss out on some fun. The second might work, if you all agree on the rules, if you then can remember the rules you made up, and if you're clever enough to find a way to make your rules fair and the game fun, challenging and rewarding.

To avoid chaos, you elect one person the rule maker and agree to abide by his or her rules. But you don't really trust that person. You second-guess his rules constantly. You could come up with better rules. Arguments inevitably ensue. You find you can't play the game. Now you're not just bored, you're angry and lonely.

The cynicist says rules are made for breaking. But even my 9-year-old daughter understands that life without rules would be chaos. If everyone were allowed to do whatever he or she wanted, nothing good would get accomplished, and people might get hurt. Remember "Lord of the Flies"? Still gives me the heebie-jeebies, 30 years after I first read it.

I am thinking of rules today because last night at Bible study, we looked at how having rules and clearly stated expectations help us live in relationship with others -- our spouses, our children and God, for example. God gave us the 10 commandments not to control His people's every move and be a killjoy, but in order to give them guidance so they might be able to live in harmony with Him and each other. They are a map to successful living. The rules might seem strict, but without them, life would be chaos.

That reminds me of the movie I just saw over the weekend, "The Martian", which tells the story of an American astronaut left behind on Mars. He has to find a way to survive until he can be rescued. Fortunately, there are rules, and he knows them. He knows the scientific laws of survival on Mars. What he doesn't know, he is able to figure out based on his knowledge of science and math. If he didn't know the rules, he would die.

I also am reading (yet another) book set on Mount Everest. This one takes place in 1925, and the climbers are innovating equipment that will help them survive on the mountain. They know the rules of high-altitude climbing and its effect on their bodies, as well as the variable factors caused by the always-moving glacier (avalanches, ice falls, collapsing seracs, changing crevasses). If they didn't know the rules -- don't ascend or descend too quickly, for instance -- they would die.

On the way home from Bible study, my daughter and I talked how the 10 commandments help us have a relationship with God because we know what he expects of us. Then, I asked her what the rules are at home that help us have good relationships with each other. We both thought for a minute and didn't come up with any explicit rules right away. No yelling, I finally said. No hurting each other on purpose -- both kinds of hurting, Emma interjected, physical and feelings.

Other than that, we could not come up with any set house rules! My husband and I never really grew up with house rules, and we never instituted any in our home. This is not good. Just like the game that can't be played without rules, relationships with no stated expectations either go nowhere or are doomed to fail. I have been becoming more and more unsettled recently at home, feeling like things are out of control, like we are motoring along with no map (or GPS), uncertain of how to get where we are going — heck, uncertain of where we even want to go. I get irritated when things aren't done the way I want them to be -- or aren't done at all -- even though I never directed anyone to do them or said how I want them to be done. I find myself being disappointed, repeatedly. Rules. What a novel concept (she said, shaking her head).

Rules are the answer. Rules convey expectations. When expectations are known, they can be met! I have seen the monochromatic wooden signs in gift shops and in housewares departments, titled "House Rules." I have considered buying one, but I haven't because those are someone else's idea of the rules. We need our own.

In our house, it has to start with "Love each other, and treat each other how you want to be treated." But that is vague, isn't it? Some might think loving each other is just saying "I love you" and giving the occasional hug. To me, love by definition — biblical love — is sacrificial. But I admit I am selfish. I want people to treat me like a queen (there, I said it). So, if I am going to follow these first two rules, I need to put my own needs to be treated like royalty aside and instead treat my family like royalty. That doesn't mean do everything for them, though. Especially with a tween, I need to be teaching her to do things for herself and become independent. But my daughter's love language (a la Gary Chapman) is "acts of service"; so, especially in her case, if I want to show her love, I need to overcome my laziness and do things for her. Bring her a glass of water if she's thirsty. Help her find socks that don't bother her feet. Give her a hand with a task.

(By the way, if you haven't read "Five Love Languages" by Gary Chapman, I highly recommend it. You can figure out your own love language and communicate it to your spouse or significant other so he knows how to help you feel the most loved. You can find out your family members' love languages -- they have to agree to take the assessment -- so you know how best to show them love. It has helped me understand my needy daughter so much better and confirmed my own languages -- physical touch and quality time. The other two languages Chapman identifies are gifts and words of affirmation.) I now have compiled a list of general house rules, such as "communicate in respectful tones" and "if you need help, ask" and specific house rules, such as "if the dog's water bowl is empty, fill it." I plan to share these with my husband first so he can help me revise and refine them (although I would rather be queen and simply decree them!).

After 40-plus years of doing life, 18 of them together, I predict my husband and I are going to have as hard a time -- if not harder -- than our daughter in following all our new house rules. But having written them down, I already feel like a piece of the puzzle that leads to my family's well-being (and my sanity) has locked into place. Will I constantly be disappointed because the rules are not being followed? I hope not. We all will have to be responsible for enforcing and following them. I'll keep you posted on how it goes! Unlike the astronaut on Mars or the climber on Everest, we won't die if we break the rules. But by having and knowing the rules, we have a much better chance of living successfully.


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