Thursday, October 30, 2008

Playing by the Rules

The other day, while returning home from the vet's office, I found myself behind this truck. If you click on the image to enlarge it, you will see that there are signs on the back of the truck. The one on the left points left, and says "passing side;" the one on the right points right and says "suicide."

I found it amusing, felt a connection with the author of the signs, and decided to photograph it. But now it falls to me to explore what might be the larger implications of this message, and I confess I'm a bit reluctant, because it smacks of absolutism, and fundamentalism: Do it the right way, and you'll get ahead in life; do it the wrong way and you DIE. Thinking of that immediately raises the spectre of sin, and Puritanism, and (as Halloween approaches) all the devils and goblins -- and police -- that'll come after you if you stray from the pre-assigned path.

It reminds me of the constant admonitions of our younger daughter, whom we often teased for being a "rule-based automaton." Though she was always a bit that way, it became most obvious when she took driver ed: she became fiercely critical of her parents' driving. A constant stream of criticism would flow from the backseat whenever she was in the car: "Dad, you're driving over the speed limit!" "Mom, turn your blinker on!" "Nice parking job - NOT!" "Nice stop -- NOT!"

Yes, though I am a law-abiding citizen, I do occasionally bend the rules. And though I doubt I'd ever do so with a truck like this -- too risky! -- I have been known to pass on the right, especially when a slow-moving citizen has the audacity to drive well under the speed limit in the HOV lane. And I have to confess that the part of me that believes in patient, attentive mindfulness has frequently had to take a back seat to the part of me that always seems to want to get where I'm going a bit faster than the stated speed limit allows.

I could launch into some tirade about following the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, but face it: I would just be rounding up excuses. Because the fact is, sometimes I screw up. And while in some areas of my life I am a model of propriety, there are other areas where I fail to live up to my own standards of behavior, whether or not they are in sync with society's standards.

A friend of mine mentioned guilt the other night. "I'm not even Catholic," she moaned, "why do I feel so GUILTY all the time?"

"Ah," I replied, "Let me guess: were you raised a Presbyterian?"

"Why, yes, what does that have to do with it?"

"I think Presbyterians struggle with guilt WAY more than Catholics do," I replied. For one thing, we don't get to go to confession and release the guilt by saying Hail Mary's and Our Fathers. But we also don't get given quite such clear rules. And the fact is that it's way easier to live with clear rules than the sort of situation ethics embodied in Jesus' commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself." Because to do that right, we have to always be THINKING about what would be right; we have to stay conscious, and most of us find that exhausting; it becomes simpler just to slip back into old patterns and habitual behaviors, or take the easy way out, and then guilt rears its ugly head again.

So this morning I embarked upon my new reading adventure, into The Cloud of Unknowing. And the first thing that 14th-century monk had to say that really leaped out at me was this:

"Look ahead now and never mind what is behind; see what you still need, and not what you have, for this is how meekness is most quickly won and defended."

And though I've never "had much truck" (as they say) with the notion of original sin, or the emphasis some denominations place on reminding us of our sinfulness, it is nonetheless true that when I embark upon a lengthy meditation session or period I am often beset with reminders of my weak spots; the areas where I fail to live up to my own values and beliefs, where I still need work and guidance. At such times those areas seem far more obvious than the things I have managed to do well, and I can't help but question what right I have to call myself a contemplative, or to continue writing this blog.

So I have to thank this monk for reminding me that "this is how meekness is most quickly won and defended." I don't believe we are expected to wallow in our sinfulness -- there are as many traps for the unwary in the wallowing as there are in the sins themselves. But it doesn't hurt to have occasional reminders that we are not perfect; they keep us from getting too full of ourselves. And if we are too full of our SELVES, as this truck is so full of rocks and dirt, there will be no room for God.

In the end, that meekness that Jesus claimed was so blessed isn't cowardice, or wussiness, though it is often confused with that. Meekness is more about humility; knowing we are not perfect, and not always deserving. And sometimes it is just about patience, about being willing to wait through the parts when the road is narrow and we can't see around the bend.

It is, I think, the delusion that we and our goals and our lives are so much more important that drives us, against both logic and rules, to push ahead thoughtlessly. And sometimes it's just frustration -- at not being able to see beyond the obstacles in our immediate future to what lies ahead -- that drives us to pass on the right rather than wait for an appropriate opening on the approved and safe side.

And yes, the truck is right: sometimes that thoughtless drive to push ahead, to step out of line, to put ourselves out in front can be suicide. As the old quote says, discretion is the better part of valor. Or, to put it more succinctly, in the words of my kindergarten teacher, sometimes it's best to be patient, and "Wait your turn!"

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