Are you a human? Then disobey.

“Resist much, obey little.” –Walt Whitman–

For the most part, I consider myself a rule follower. In college, when my boyfriend and his buddies launched water balloons onto the football field during a powder puff game or donned their wet-suits to “swim” in all of the on-campus fountains or caught an opossum to release it into the laundry room of the freshman boys’ dorm, I didn’t join. I did sit in the stands at the powder puff game laughing as water balloons interrupted the game, knowing who was behind it. I found it humorous that the campus police (“Campus Safety,” as they were called) knew exactly who my boyfriend was. I definitely enjoyed living vicariously through his antics — all from the comfort of my obedience.

Not to say that I should have been out pranking the school at every opportunity, getting on the campus police’s “blacklist,” but maybe I did miss out a little bit. Ever the bad influence, my boyfriend did get me to disobey a bit here and there. Senior year, we climbed onto the roof of the largest building on campus — something that was definitely against the rules.

And then I married the guy. (Love ya, hubby.)

I think I knew deep down that I was never going to be with someone who floated along with the status quo. Where’s the fun in that? But more importantly, who wants to be with a rule-following robot?

And then I started asking myself if I was a rule-following robot.

It’s so easy to become. It’s what employers and law enforcement and government want you to become. And to an extent, it’s necessary to follow the rules.

But when the rules don’t make sense anymore, what is one to do? Remember Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”? The unnamed narrator has just had a baby, is experiencing depression (yes, it’s postpartum), and is confined to her room, not allowed even to write in her journal. She knows this is unhealthy, but she is a woman, and not only is her husband a man, but he’s a doctor (oooOOOhhh). She tries to follow the rules. But it makes her crazy. She scratches and rips at the wallpaper in her attic room, frantically trying to release the woman she sees trapped inside the walls. On all fours, she “creeps” around the room (eventually creeping over her passed-out husband). Clearly, following the rules was not a good idea for her. (If you haven’t read the story, you should! It’s a fantastic read. You can the full text here, provided by Project Gutenberg: “The Yellow Wallpaper.”)

In her case, following the rules made her lose her mind. So what does following the rules do to us?

I can only speak for myself, but here’s what I’ve learned about being a rule-following robot:

  • It inhibits change.
  • It squelches potential.
  • It stifles creativity.
  • It prevents questioning.

I’ll be honest: sometimes I wonder if those people put in authority over me were put there because they are rule-following robots. They do what they are told to do. And they are controllable. It might be the easy way out for employers to put rule-following robots into management positions because employers don’t feel threatened by robots.

But how innovative and creative and healthy could our environments be if we could freely question the rules and have healthy dialogue?

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. –Albert Einstein

I work as a teacher at a private school. We don’t have to follow all the rules that public schools do. But even at a private school, I think we still have a tendency to want rule-following-robot teachers and rule-following-robot students. Perhaps what it comes down to is that it’s easier and safer to run an institution where people simply do as they’re told. But if we want to be set apart and different from other schools, it’s probably not going to happen if things are always easy and safe. It’s probably not going to happen if a few people at the top are making the rules. It’s probably not going to happen if the rules aren’t being questioned.

So this blog post is for all humans. Are you an underling? Have the confidence to ask questions and push for change. If you aren’t supported in that, if at all possible, leave. Are you in a management position? Encourage your people to ask questions and push for change — and then be their advocate to the higher-ups. Finally, are you a CEO? A head of school? The president? If you are secure in your own abilities, you will welcome discourse that includes resistance to your rules and questioning of your decisions.

Stop floating through the bog that is the status quo, adhering to someone else’s version of life. In the wise words of Big Brother contestant Rachel Reilly, “Floaters, you better grab a life vest.”

But in all seriousness, I think Whitman’s words still ring true today. Never accept status quo. Never get to the point in life of I’ve figured it all out. Never stop questioning. Resist. Disobey.

And as a(n almost) final note, it’s interesting that Whitman expressed his antithesis of two independent clauses by joining them with only a comma. In terms of formal English, it’s a run-on. (Well, I never! *Says with pinky finger up whilst sipping tea.*) So maybe he chuckled to himself as he wrote that. Whitman: the rebel, the rule-breaker. Good ol’ Walt. Certainly we appreciate Whitman’s wit and writing legacy (clearly we do: he is the poetic inspiration of the wildly popular series Breaking Bad). And it’s writers like him who have influenced me as a writer. They’ve inspired me to break the rules of writing. And it’s freeing, I’ll tell ya. (How many times do I write fragments? Or start sentences with coordinating conjunctions?)

But while appreciating is nice, it’s not going to change our lives — action will. So let’s do it. Resist. Disobey. Zip into your wet-suit, and jump in a fountain. And let’s teach our kids to do the same. (Cue the riff from “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes.)

3 thoughts on “Are you a human? Then disobey.

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