There’s a scene from the movie Revolutionary Road that I find intensely powerful. (It’s a pretty amazing movie just don’t watch it if you have anything remotely close to relationship issues or are having a midlife crisis – or both). The two main characters (1950’s couple in a decaying relationship caught between dreams of adventure and the pressure to conform to a rigid social doctrine) are having another fight. They are fighting about what they WANT to do with life but feel they can never achieve. They start yelling about the “rules”. What they “can’t” do and how the “rules” stop them and are choking them slowly. In exasperation Kate Winslet finally asks “who MADE these rules!!???”
And the reality is they don’t know. No one person did. They are being quietly suffocated by these insidious implied rules that one must follow to fit into society.
I love the scene because it’s a reminder to me to question. It reminds me how easy it is to slip into the way we assume we should be. It’s hardly surprising that we as human beings do it so easily. Conformity and forming group identity with those around us is almost hard wired into the human mind. It’s a survival skill as fundamental as the startle response or fight or flight. For the entire evolution of the human mind one rule has been constant. Alone you die but with a group you have physical, social, emotional and spiritual survival.
But it’s a balancing act. Too much individuality and you are ostracised from society, too little and life passes you in a blur of grey conformity and your soul is crushed.
I have become acutely aware of this as a parent. I have these dreams of bringing up free spirited kids who will be what ever they want to be. Mechanical engineer or poet I don’t care as long as they are happy. But I catch myself in the day to day ensuring that they conform. Eat your dinner, sit down at the table, stand close to me, don’t touch that, do touch that, speak nicely when someone talks to you, be polite…..the list goes on. And sometimes I wonder if all that focus on being “good” is actually slowly ensuring they follow rules above spontaneity or safety above risk. Amazing artists break rules. So do amazing engineers or doctors or cabinet makers. (I console myself with the mantra that to break the rules you must understand them first.)
But allowing a child to grow up without any rules or structure can be damaging. They don’t know how or can’t fit in when they need to. It’s all about them and their whims. They become unpredictable and demanding.
So I go back to wondering if I am getting it right. Hoping really. But in reality how the hell will I ever know? What the hell is a “successful child” and therefore a “successful parent”? (There’s the old “if they’re not an axe murderer then they are OK” rule but I reckon that’s setting the bar pretty low.)
But it is all amplified on this journey. We want the girls to feel free but stuffed if I will let my child run free through a Bangkok market place. I want them to make the decisions but sitting in a hotel room watching movies all day is not what we are crossing the world for. So we keep moving and wondering if the balance is right. And I keep questioning myself to see if I am following the “rules” too closely.
Because I am at times and I noticed it this week when I flew to Houston, Texas to do a week of work and left Mel and the girls in Singapore. You see I have been collecting bracelets or “hippy bands”. I thought that a nice symbol of our trip would be to slowly build up a collection of bracelets as I cross the world. So I end up looking like those young Pommy backpackers and Euro travellers who have a journal of their travels up their forearm in the form of a tangled mess of leather and silver.
The foundation is a silver bangle from our 10th wedding anniversary. Mel ceremoniously tied this first leather journey band on a day or so before we drove away from Maxwell Ave in Melbourne. There’s one from an op shop in a one street central Queensland town. There’s another from Flores and one from a night market in Jakarta.
But as I packed for a week of work in Texas with an Oil & Gas company I got Mel to untie them all. Just in case I didn’t look quite right for the CEO and all the oil rig engineers, drillers and mud loggers. Following the rules that no one has set.
I placed them all in a bag and as soon as I landed I tied them all back on again.
Humans are funny things. As am I. Following the rules all the way even when we don’t know whether the consequences of not following them are an illusion or not.
It makes me want to ask more often: “What would REALLY happen if…..?”