There is a sign in the neighborhood park near my house:
Yet, there is a huge pile of brush, grass clippings, leaves, rotting pumpkins, and skeletal Christmas trees at the bottom of a wooded ravine, below the sign. I watch the pile grow and recede throughout the year as I walk my dog: it expands during the warm months when everything grows, and contracts as winter snow covers, compresses, and decomposes it. The sign, standing sentry, rusts a little more each year.
When I clean up my lawn and garden, I collect debris in yard waste bags, which I then leave on the curb to be picked up by the town. Recently, however, I decided to trim my long-neglected forsythia hedge. In our 20 years of living here, the forsythia had exploded in size and begun to consume a good part of my neighbor’s property. I’d watched it get worse and worse over the years, and though my neighbor never complained, the overgrown unruliness bothered me, and I’d meant to take care of it. Finally, one day, I got to work hacking the hedge into a tighter, neater shape, confining it with growing satisfaction back to manageable proportions.
It was too much to hack down into small enough pieces to fit into yard bags, and too much to fit into my car to bring to the town yard. So I found myself dragging tangles of freshly cut forsythia up the street and into the park, tossing each load into the ravine under the sign. As I dragged my loads, the fresh, earthy spring breeze fluttered the tiny new leaves on the trees; songbirds called to each other in the sunshine; my skin itched where the branches scratched me. I’d readied a load for a fifth haul when my elderly neighbor emerged from her house. Assuming she would be relieved that my forsythia would no longer be commandeering her yard, I was surprised when instead she asked me if I’d seen the sign in the park.
“I would,” she said, “hate to see you fined five thousand dollars for the first offense.”
Unsure how to respond, I thanked her, told her I would be careful and discreet, and continued, pricked by guilt.
My clear conscience became cloudy. Was I doing the right thing? Why did I make that choice? How do we make our individual choices in light of the greater whole—what’s in a decision to obey a rule, or not, and what are the consequences?
There is also a sense of outrage, of iconoclasm, of, how dare someone else make rules that I have to live by? Why am I allowing someone else to think for me? There is so much of this kind of sentiment in our culture at the moment—screw everyone else, I’m doing what’s best for me.
I had a friend who used to say with a smirk, “Signs are only a guideline,” glancing at me sidelong to assess my reaction. My spouse likes to tease me when I roll a stop sign. “Do you see those stop signs with the white border?” he says. “They’re ‘stoptional.’ The white border means it’s optional.”
Truthfully, we all cut corners here and there, whether it’s rolling a stop sign, parking past the limit, deciding not to pick up your dog’s poop if it means tromping through poison ivy, failing to renew a car registration on time when it comes due.
Where and when did this idea of “I” being valued more highly than “we” come from? Humans are wired to function as a community; building and maintaining tight-knit units were vital for survival for thousands of years. It’s only more recently, when reliance on the group became less critical, that this ego-centrism became more overt, more socially acceptable. While we can technically survive without community, our brains function best when we feel part of a larger group, a greater whole. Our mood and sense of purpose improves, while isolation has been shown to adversely affect us.
It’s difficult to find the right balance, though. How do we allow everyone some sense of agency to make decisions for themselves, yet at the same time, have some agreement or standard of behavior? A good balance accommodates a range of needs: some people feel safe with more rules, while others feel stifled.
Clearly, flouting the rules all the time does not cultivate nor contribute to a stronger community, though occasionally it leads to personal success (thinking of certain political and corporate leaders). Conversely, however, is following the rules all the time a healthy way to live? Following mindlessly can remove the need to think: You can put your brain on autopilot and simply do what is expected of you, no thought needed.
The erroneousness of this idea hit me hard a couple of weeks after the day of my hedge trimming, when a friend’s young child was tragically killed in a crosswalk in town. It appears everyone involved in the accident was obeying the traffic signs: the child and her parent were in the crosswalk, crossing with the light, yet simultaneously, a waiting truck received a green arrow to turn, and proceeded, killing the child.
Clearly, one can follow all the rules and bad outcomes, even tragedies, can still occur. After all, rules are created by humans, and humans make mistakes.
I’m not sure there is one. I don’t think I would have chosen differently if I had to relive that day; from my perspective, the penalties of following the “no dumping” rule were too high compared with the consequences of disregarding it. At the same time, my friend and her child followed all the rules, yet the rules still somehow could not keep them safe.
Perhaps there are no answers. Perhaps the only true answer comes from the child, and the way she lived her five years of life before it was taken from her. “Mom!” she used to say, nearly every day at bedtime, “This was the BEST DAY EVER! What are we doing tomorrow?”
Perhaps the balance, then, is to be found in being fully present, living each day like it is your best ever—to view everything through a fresh lens of wonder and joy, keeping your heart open, freely giving the best of yourself to yourself, your community and those you love, always. There is, after all, no guarantee of a redo.