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longgone's avatar

Why do so many of us look for rules to live by?

Asked by longgone (17090points) November 9th, 2015

I’m thinking of religion, but also ethical guidelines or even daily exercise routines. Many of us seem to go looking for rules. Are we creating challenges for ourselves? Do we long for the feeling of having everything crossed off our internal checklists? Might it be a cultural thing?

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9 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

It’s part of emotional growth to find a dualistic understanding of the universe: this is right, that is wrong. We search when young so that we can behave consistently in a world of continual changes and new experiences.

When we get older, we can move beyond a dualistic thinking and be open to more possibilities.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

I do not think I seek rules to live by, if it were up to me, I would have very little rules. When it comes to my faith, the rules are set by God, I have nothing to do with it, just the freewill to follow it or not. With people in general I feel they have to have rules, it is because they deep in their soul know order needs to be done, or else their own self-preservation is at risk. However, they err in believing the rules they follow is the most correct when there is no definitive correct rule when just coming from men. What is the correct rule for one is not necessarily the correct rule for others. People develop rules to suit their own emotional need.

thorninmud's avatar

This is a very broad question that doesn’t lend itself to generalities, so I’ll just comment from a particular religious perspective.

Rules can be a way of understanding by doing (or not doing, as the case may be). The rules kind of take you by the hand and guide you along a particular way of living that you might not have been particularly inclined to undertake otherwise. In the course of living this way, you may understand first hand the wisdom of that way. Seeing for yourself is a more powerful way to understanding than having somebody tell you.

This is kind of like learning to ballroom dance. You could hear an explanation of how to tango, or even see it demonstrated, but the tango is better understood by actually going through the motions. So a dance teacher might make you step through one of those diagrams on the floor that make you put your feet in the right places. Now, just by doing that you’re still not really dancing the tango; but you’re getting some embodied sense of what actually dancing the tango would be like. You’re closer to understanding tango by going through the motions. Eventually, you have to leave those diagrams behind, or you’ll never really be dancing, because dancing is more than going through motions.

Here’s an example from my own path: There are a certain number of rules that come with being a Zen priest. Among other things, I have to shave my head every couple of weeks. I also can only wear clothes that are blue or gray or black. Those rules may seem unreasonably restrictive and pointless. They’re certainly not choices I would have been inclined to make on my own. But, having lived that way for several years, I clearly understand that while it seems like these rules are an impingement on my freedom, I’m actually much more free as a result. I now spend so much less time looking in mirrors, deciding what to wear, thinking about the effect I want my appearance to have on others. I would never want to go back to that. This is a freedom that I discovered by following rules. And all of the other rules I follow serve the same purpose.

Jeruba's avatar

Maybe because some people believe that if you make enough rules, nothing can go wrong.

stanleybmanly's avatar

We’re apparently herd animals.

LuckyGuy's avatar

@thorninmud I’ve heard school uniforms offer the same freedom. My kids wore uniforms in Japan when they were in elementary school. They always knew what to put on in the morning. It was great!

LostInParadise's avatar

The existentialists spoke of the great dread we have of our freedom. We fear uncertainty and are concerned about what opportunities we will miss when we make a particular choice. Rules and rituals are ways around this.

From a more practical point of view, following certain rules provides a structure to our lives, making possible creative choices in the way that the structure of a sonnet provides a structure for the poet to work with. It helps to go to sleep and wake up at more or less set times and to do the same with when we eat.

Jeruba's avatar

Let’s not forget how much interest we have in seeing that the rules are followed by others. If we agree to a common set of rules, there are constraints on the behavior of our neighbors. The rules also help us interpret others’ behavior and intent. We feel safer when we’re operating within the same framework as that of others around us, when we know what their words and actions signify, and when we know what limits they observe.

Following the rules ourselves can be seen as keeping our part of a bargain that ultimately safeguards our own comfort and security.

One of the cultural disconnects of our time seems to be how many people think they’re exempt from these implicit bargains—that they don’t have to observe the rules on their side, even though they expect others to. (I enjoy movies with “maverick” heroes as much as anyone—but how are they influencing people’s thinking?)

I also see this as a downside of multiculturalism; it would be unrealistic to say that there is none. If we follow certain rules, it stands to reason that we think they’re important in some way. And so we don’t like it when somebody else defies or simply ignores them. Not only does that go against our sense of how things ought to be but, for some, it also calls into question the validity of the rules themselves and may shake their own faith or beliefs. If the rules matter (and especially if they allegedly came from a divinity), how come those other guys don’t have to follow them? They must be bad, crazy, heathen.

When you don’t know what your neighbors’ behavior means, when you don’t know what they expect from you or how they interpret your behavior—when you don’t live by the same rules and don’t even know what each other’s rules are—you have a setup for serious conflict. It’s not hard to see why people retreat into “us” and “them” thinking. And what’s the biggest difference between us and them? We follow different rules.

This is also one reason why it can be so frightening to be around someone who is enraged, insane, or whacked out on drugs: their behavior is unpredictable and likely to go outside the rules we recognize, and then we’re very vulnerable in their presence. We don’t even know what rules they’re following, if any. And obeying the rules ourselves won’t protect us.

Stinley's avatar

I like following rules in unfamiliar situations. I don’t think I have a natural instinct for how to behave. I need the rules. I will actively seek them out. Once I feel comfortable in a situation I can change rules that apply to me but I will conform to the rules that are for the general good

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