“Not much is as important as you once thought it was.”
By the time we are on the approach to midlife we have accumulated quite an extensive collection of rules—most of which we don’t even stop to question. Through repetition and indoctrination we have learned to take many these rules as gospel. Some of these edicts are legitimate, necessary and actually protect us from behavior that can be harmful to ourselves or to others. Following the Ten Commandments and Rule of Law, washing your hands after you use the bathroom (or ride the subway), understanding the rules of the road—including speed limits, “yield,” “pass on the left” and “right” of way are all decrees that keep us safe, healthy and enable us to live with each other in a relatively civilized society. All in all, this is a good thing.
However, on the other hand, there are the arbitrary societal rules that don’t necessarily make any sense, but we follow them anyway—mostly because we haven’t thought about the logic behind them. Rules like the recently done away with, but hard to get out of our heads, “You can’t wear white after Labor Day.” And I won’t even go into the zealous dogma of wedding etiquette—who pays for what and who sits on which side of the church—what if you’re friends with the bride AND the groom?!
There are the rules that become obsolete because life changes and progress happens. Rules like “When walking with a lady, the gentleman walks on the outside near the curb, the lady on the inside.” This was to protect the woman’s voluminous dresses and petticoats from dust and muddy splashes sprayed up on the sidewalk from horse drawn carriages passing in the street. Now many urban pedestrians have experienced an unwanted and unpleasant shower from a speeding taxi or car while waiting for the light to change. But sidewalks are much wider than they used to be, we don’t have horses hooves tossing divots into our path and our dresses are, under most normal daily activities, hardly dragging along the sidewalk, but the “rule” still exists. I find myself, if I’m not on my guard, looking at a young couple strolling down the street and wondering “Doesn’t “he” know he’s “supposed” to walk on the outside?” Duh…
And we have … “Ladies do not shake hands either with gentlemen, or as a general rule, with each other.” (Emily Post 1922) This little antiquated dictum was clearly established during a time when there was not a clue about how society might evolve and shifts in the norm might affect what constitutes decorum and acceptability— before there were women in the
workplace holding meetings and making deals where the shaking of hands is standard business practice. And now of course, women shake pretty much anything they want in public, including their booties while admonishing that “if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it…”
Then there are the rules that are not rules at all; they only indicate preference. The over/under toilet paper roll debate is a good example—the 160,000+ Google entries on the subject notwithstanding. There is no rule or right or wrong here, only what you like, and of course, habit.
We also have traditions, usually holiday and family related, which are passed on to us either directly or indirectly, with a complete set of rules—many of which are unspoken. At least until they come into conflict with a differing tradition—like when a Christmas Eve gift opener marries a Christmas morning opener, or the jack-o-lantern pumpkin carver decides to take up with the plastic pumpkin picker. Sorting out the “when and if” of breaking our long-held rules and flying in the face of sacred and inviolate family policies is a subjective undertaking and, I have concluded, best left to be negotiated (or duked out) by those who are involved. So you’ll get no advice (or judgment) from me about whether the dressing goes inside or outside the turkey—or for that matter, the semantics of calling it dressing or stuffing.
No…those rules are the easy stuff.
The rules I want to talk about here are the ones we impose on ourselves and on our families with steely will and determination— the rules about things we want done in a particular way. This includes everything from declarative statements that start with “We always…” or “I never…” to the way towels are folded, the place we keep our plastic bags and our hair-dos and don’ts. (Which will be addressed in a future Lesson – Hair Story). We don’t even see it happening, but slowly and surely our own rules lead us to trade “cute” – not as in “pretty and perky” but as in delightful, adorable (read loveable) and savvy, for being “right.” By then, we are well on our way to shrewdom—a frame of mind that is so totally non-cute.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against order, logic and convenience. And certainly I have nothing against being right, after all, this entire book is an ode to my notion that “I am right.” But what we have to ask ourselves is how much does being right really matter in the long run? So what I do have a problem with, is when we no longer have any idea why we follow the rules we do—when we just continue doing what we’ve always done without even considering whether or not our behavior or attitude is useful, helpful, or even necessary.
“Set in their ways.” Is what used to be said about, and even by “old folks” as kind of a catchall dismissal of a resistance to things that were new or might require some kind of change of mind, attitude or behavior—however slight. There is some validity to that as a description of what happens to us when we get older and “new” starts to mean the same as “bad.” Years of repetition breeds—well, more repetition and we do get awfully comfortable with the familiar.
My sister Valerie, a veteran HR executive who daily fights the uphill battle to institute change and encourage flexible attitudes, customs and mores in the workplace, tells a story she calls “Ham in the Pan.”
Once upon a time at a job long, long ago, there was a staffer, who for the sake of this story we’ll call Mary, who always made a ham for office parties and potluck gatherings and the ham was always a delicious, resounding hit. Valerie asked for the recipe, which Mary was happy to deliver (this was pre-email) to my sister’s office the next day. Val read the
ingredients for the sauce for basting the ham (clearly the secret to such a successful hunk of pig) and then the instructions, which said, “Cut the sides off the ham…” More than a little curious, Val asked Mary the reason for cutting the sides off the ham. Would this somehow allow the hulking haunch to absorb more of the fabulous basting nectar? Was that the secret? “I don’t know, this is the way my Mom made ham,” Mary said. My sister didn’t probe any deeper, and decided she would just use the removed sides to season some green beans or dice and add to a quiche.
A few days later, Mary saw my sister in the hall and said, “You know…I asked my mom why she cut the sides off the ham…” My sister smiled, still eager to learn about the magic kitchen wisdom that lurked behind performing the hamectomy. She wanted, and was fully expecting an “Ah ha!” moment when it would all become clear, make perfect sense and she’d end up wondering why no one else had discovered this seemingly simple step before. Mary continued. “Mom said when she started making the big holiday ham, she didn’t have a pan large enough so that’s how she made the ham fit. I guess I watched her do it, so that’s the way I’ve done it in my house ever since— even though my pan is plenty big.”
My sister uses “The Ham in the Pan” as an example to shake people out of their set in ways on the job—her own “Who Moved My Cheese” story, but “The Ham in the Pan” is a parable we can all learn from. We need to take a look at the things we “always do” a certain way and ask ourselves if it’s possible that just maybe, there is another, equally effective approach— like a bigger pan.
We women in particular, can be rigid and unyielding about the how we want things done, and complain when someone else (husband, significant other, child, parent or even a neighbor—in their OWN house) chooses to do the thing differently (read incorrectly). Sometimes we are forced to hold our tongues like with our boss at work or with our neighbors, and we find ourselves secretly stewing in the bubbling juices of our rightness—a decidedly bitter brew. But lucky for us, in our own homes and families, we not only are free to let the wrongdoers know, in no uncertain terms, they have done the thing, whatever it is, incorrectly, we then set about to redo it—“the right way.” Feeling enormous justification and more than a small degree of self-righteousness, we next convince ourselves that it’s really just easier to do it ourselves in the first place, or we berate the other person for not “getting it.” “How many times do I have to tell you…?”
And with every silent, resentful “do it ourselves” initiative, or incompetency rant, we grow just a little more bitter and a little more “set in our ways.”
The question you have to ask as you prepare to “get over yourself” and the need to be right, is — does it really matter if the light bulbs are put on the third shelf instead of the fourth? Is there a life hanging in the balance (yours or anyone else’s) if the flat sheet is not folded around the fitted sheet and the pillow cases? Obviously, the answer is “No.” Try giving yourself a break from your own rules. Ease up on the need to be RIGHT. You just might like it—and realize that the world didn’t stop spinning on its axis.
- If you have no little, intractable “rules” in any part of your world, (think carefully) you may skip this homework! Congratulations!
- On the other hand if you do have a few teeny tiny laws in that secret little Rule Book of yours, write down five of them on separate pieces of paper. Fold each piece so they are the same size (in quarters, then in half usually works well) and place in a bowl, basket, hat—any container of your choosing.
- Once every week (until you empty the container) remove one of your rules, read it, then throw it away—literally and figuratively.
- You will go an entire week without adhering to that rule. You will in fact, deliberately break that rule. (Fold your towels in half instead of thirds, eat takeout on the “good” china, part your hair on the other side…you get the picture.)
- If you make it through the week without breaking into the shakes or a cold sweat because you left an unwashed glass in the kitchen sink overnight, ran the vacuum on Tuesday evening instead of Saturday morning, or returned phone calls before you do your email at work, instead of the other way around—which is the way you’ve always done it (or vice versa), you’re well on your way to getting over…yourself.