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It Seems To Me: Rules and freedom

Posted: Friday, Feb 22nd, 2013

Several years ago, I attended a town board meeting where members of the community filled the room. This is unusual, especially in rural communities, so I knew we were in for an interesting meeting. The crowd had gathered to voice their complaints about one of the town’s law enforcement officers.

“He takes himself too seriously,” one person said, and most of the people in the room nodded their heads in agreement.

After some animated discussion, the mayor stood and said, “The problem with you people is you hate to have someone tell you what to do!”

“Mr. Mayor, you’re a damned poor American if you don’t feel that way!” was the response he got.

Since then, I’ve thought about this quite a bit. In “The Birth of Tragedy,” Friedrich Nietzsche suggests that all conflicts in drama are the result of a struggle between those who seek order and reason and those who seek passion and the freedom of chaos.

Those who seek order like rules – they set boundaries and create order. If everyone knows and obeys the rules – life is predictable and stable.

Those who enjoy complete freedom feel restricted by rules – they don’t see why they are necessary and feel that their ability to make choices is restricted by the boundaries set by rules.

Interestingly enough, Nietzsche also suggests that a blending of these two aspects produces the best results.

Rules are created for a number of reasons. We have laws that were created to protect us – We simply can’t go around beating on each other, for example.

Sometimes laws restrict one group so that another is protected. We don’t allow people to dump garbage into our rivers because that would harm those who live downstream.

Organizations will create rules to help facilitate their mission. Schools create rules governing attendance in order to facilitate learning, for example, and companies create rules governing customer service.

Unfortunately, sometimes rules seem cumbersome, and sometimes the purpose behind them becomes less important than the reason for them.

For example, my daughter Marlayna and I flew out from Seattle a few years ago to be with my family while Dad underwent a serious operation. We flew into Albuquerque, when it came time for my daughter to fly back, we were still in Denver where Dad had his surgery. Since she had a scheduled layover in Denver, I called the airline and asked if she could just board there.

“The only way to do that,” I was told, “would be to cancel your flight and reschedule a flight out of Denver.”

That made sense to me until I found out that it would cost more than twice as much to do that because we would be buying a ticket within 24 hours of her flight.

“Look,” I tried to explain. “I’m not asking for a refund. Just pretend she is getting on the plane in Albuquerque and we’ll put her on the plane in Denver.”

“I’m sorry, sir. We can’t do that. It’s against the rules.”


“The rules were created so we can better serve you, our customer.”

Perhaps there should be a little flexibility in some rules.

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