Why Have Rules?

 

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No job, no boss, no alarm clocks, no duties, no responsibilities, no reputation: one would think that traveling abroad would be the perfect time not to have any rules. After all, isn’t the point to get out of that rut, to escape the dullness of the 9-5 work week, to leave the rat race behind, to find yourself, your real, true self, to experience utter and total freedom, and happiness, and so on?

Well, kind of.

All that stuff is well and good. People need it, especially people who have spent most of their life either being schooled or being worked. It would be only slightly melodramatic to say that some even spend their entire lives “institutionalized” in this manner, working hard to reach predetermined goals, often without stopping to ponder what the point of achieving those goals is. Step out of all that striving, into the existential vacuum of having nothing laid out in front of you and no clue where to go, and you may well find yourself facing…yourself. Who are you when nobody knows you or expects anything of you? What is it that you will choose to do now that it’s finally entirely up to you?

At the same time that travel gives you the space to develop deeper insight into these sort of questions about yourself and what you really want, it also, mysteriously, majestically, perhaps even proportionally, gives you an opportunity to develop some insight about other people. The world just happens to be full of them! Totally different from you in so many ways and yet so much the same in others. They look different, talk different, and eat different, but still kind of act the same, studying (or at least learning), working, playing, laughing, fighting, romancing. Oldyounghappysadlazybusynicecruelfunlame etc. This is not exactly world-shaking news to anyone, but still, once you’ve stood face to face with a Cambodian villager nearly your age, held his shoulders while he drives you over hours of unpaved roads, gratefully accepted his family’s hospitality, allowed him to laugh at how poorly you wield a machete, and let his grandmother run her work-worn hands over your (suddenly, embarrassingly) smooth ones, it becomes impossible not to acknowledge that his life is real, filled just like yours with things and places and people he cares deeply about. If your happiness is worth anything, then his is too.

In other words, travel gives you the opportunity not only to become happier, but also to become better. It expands your sphere of compassion. Once you first feel that inkling that everyone else is just as important as you, and for all the same reasons, it becomes natural to try to take their well-being into account when you make a decision. We routinely, unthinkingly, and naturally do this for parents, siblings, and friends; why not try to extend the courtesy to include “potential friends” – i.e., everyone?

Thus, my “rules” aren’t really rules, in the sense that they’re not things that I’m not allowed to do. They’re things that, starting a few years ago, I realized I didn’t want to do anymore; I simply felt they that they hurt others more than they helped me. It didn’t make sense to me, so I tried to stop. It hasn’t always been easy, and it hasn’t always been clear-cut, but it’s generally felt like the right thing to do. It still does; even more so, now that I’m on the road, meeting new people every day. I want to do only things that will make them and their families happier and healthier.

I am willing to admit that my title is a bit grandiose. My three “rules” – no gas, no meat, no trash – are not the only rules possible. (Indeed, I have some other rules, too, but they don’t fit into a pithy blog title.) My three rules are certainly not universal, nor are they sufficient in and of themselves to perfect the world. Still, I think they generally keep me doing more good than harm, and I think the world would be a better place if people similar to me – that is, similarly blessed with a multitude of opportunities and choices – adopted the mindset that brought me to them. If during the course of my travels I can change one person’s world the way that one day in Cambodia changed mine, it will have been time well spent. Likewise with this blog.

May all beings be happy.

 

A Few Words on “Following”

                To be honest, I cringe every time I have to tell someone the name of my website.  It’s not that I’m not proud of what I’m doing or that I don’t think it important.  It’s that the minute one claims to be following a rule, he becomes either a liar or a hypocrite.  For example, I don’t use gas to move from A to B, but I used gas to get to A in the first place (and for my whole life up until that point),  gas was used to produce the device that I do use to get around, and gas was used to make the fertilizer used to make the food that fuels me.  Another example: I don’t eat meat because I believe it’s wrong to harm animals merely for my own gustatory pleasure, and yet I do sometimes partake in other resource-intensive foods which are only possible to grow after claiming wild land – once home to untold numbers of animals great and small – and converting it to farms.

The logical endpoint of any “do no harm” sort of rule seems to be that one himself has to stop existing.  This has probably always been the case (some Jains still practice Sallekhana, starving themselves to death), but it’s especially true today when our world is a) so interconnected that nearly everything we consume came from somewhere far away and b) so complicated that few of us really understand how any of it was made or brought to our doorstep.

Then again, someone who promised himself that he would “do no good” would find himself in a similar situation.  He might buy only meat produced with the most inhumane methods imaginable, but his doing so would support whoever it was that did the raising.  Perhaps this money would eventually be channeled to feeding or educating said farmer’s child.

I’m not sure whether this statement is more empirical or more metaphysical, but:  the good and the bad are always bound up in one another.   We will never have all of one and none of the other, especially not by means that are all one and none of the other.   Is this fact depressing because it means nothing will ever be perfect, or inspiring because it means there will always be more to strive for, more opportunities to practice compassion and kindness, more chances to feel the joy that can come of selflessness?

In any case, I admit openly that I cannot follow any of my rules perfectly, because nobody can follow any rule perfectly, because rules assume a world much simpler than the one we live in.  Still, to say that one shouldn’t have rules to aspire to is like saying that one shouldn’t speak since no words can perfectly capture the essence of whatever it is the word is meant to describe.  It might be true on some philosophical level, but to really live it would be just about unthinkable.  Who doesn’t want a world full of song and laughter and real, deep connection?

So, as much as I feel both pompous and hypocritical when I declare myself a follower of rules, I still feel it’s an important act.  I haven’t yet found a way to perfect it in practice, and don’t believe I ever will, but I do believe that the only way to make a better world is through trying.

 

Layout of the Following Rules Pages:

 

Rule: Rule name.

Rule in practice: What the rule means in my daily life; what it prohibits and what it leaves room for.

Local Motivation: Personal experiences that I don’t want to have to repeat.

Global Motivation:  Large-scale consequences of whatever it is I’m trying to avoid.

Key Tools:  Possessions and contraptions that make it easy and convenient for me to practice what I preach.  Equipped with these, following rules becomes nearly second nature.

Key Ideas: Ideas that make the rules seem like a duty, a privilege, a matter of course, or anyhow like something other than a sacrifice.  These are often more important than any tools or devices.

Bonuses: Expected and unexpected benefits that accrue thanks to following the rule.

Exceptions:  Instances when I choose not to follow the rule.

Unavoidables:  Instances when I haven’t figured out how to follow the rule.  Suggestions welcome.

References:  Books, Movies, TEDx Talks, articles, and whatever else has influenced me on the matter.

Below are a few that don’t fit into any one category:

  • Endgame (Volumes 1 and 2) and A Language Older than Words by Derek Jensen.  Two books that made opened my eyes to just how much of the environment we’ve destroyed, and how urgent it is that we get started with healing it.
  • Most anything by Wendell Berry.  Beautiful essays about life and land.
  • The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer.  An investigation into the moral obligation the wealthy among us have to the less fortunate.

 

One Response to Why Have Rules?

  1. Olga Kroll says:

    Hallo Michael,

    fortunately we have common cycle friends. That is how I learned about your blog. I am already a big fan of your mission, since I am on a similar page. I also have a blog to spread a Zero Waste Lifestyle and obviously try to life that way as well. I guess you don’t mind that I put a link of your blog on my fb page 😉
    Go on with your great work and I hope, one day we cycle along the same route 🙂

    Olga

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