A Mistake in Understanding

Below is a post I published in my old blog that was popular with readers. I hope you like it too!

For much of my life it seemed to me that everyone else in the world knew what was going on but me. I was certain that they always knew what was appropriate or right and I’d missed the class where all that was taught.

Since that was the case, I believed my parents when they said rich people were automatically going to hell. I tried very hard to live by the rules set down by adults. No lying, no stealing, don’t hit your brother, share your toys, keep your mouth shut (children should be seen and not heard). Yet, I didn’t seem to be able to remember them all and, as a consequence, got yelled at or “paddled” upon occasion.

Other kids seemed to live by a different set of rules and to lose the shackles of adult control the second those adults were out of sight. They jumped from roofs and played mumbly-peg with jackknives. They stole things from the teacher’s desk. They lied about and to one another. They lied with such authority that I believed them even though I’d witnessed something absolutely different.

Yet when they played games, they stuck to the rules (including made-up rules) almost religiously. From baseball to marbles they played by the rules and protested vehemently when anyone tried to cheat. Yet telling a grown-up when the grown-up’s rules were broken was betrayal of the highest order.

I tried very hard to live by the rules of childhood. But I failed often and got ostracized, possibly because I couldn’t keep the various sets of rules straight.

To compound the problem, I believed other people’s descriptions of reality.

I believed the neighbor kid when he said he could walk on the top rail of the fence. Well, he did make it a yard or so before one foot slipped to the left and the other slipped to the right and he ran home screaming for his mom.

I believed the preacher when he explained that the Jews were God’s chosen people during the homily. And I struggled to believe my Sunday school teacher when she told us that the Jews murdered Jesus.

When my parents and older sister were trying to explain heaven to me, they said, with smug certainty, it was just like taking vacation to visit our father in heaven. I understood vacation from my Easter vacation. “So,” I said, “After two weeks, we come back?”

“No, no, honey,” they rushed to reply, “You never come back! Where did you get such an idea?” Their hands fluttered and voices changed pitch.

With so many conflicting rules and descriptions of reality, I felt lost every minute of every day. I wondered how other people knew when which rules applied. (Perhaps this is one reason I took so enthusiastically to reading. Books were internally consistent.) I fell into the habit of trying to anticipate what would be expected of me at any given time. And I was wrong more often than not even with the few clues I accumulated over time.

Because I really believed there was truth. I believed there was one right way to be, to act or to talk, and it was beyond me. And since I clearly didn’t measure up there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I could never get it right.

But the truth is, the universe doesn’t have rules, it has tendencies.

I’ve learned over time that other people don’t know any more than I how the universe works and what a person “should” do in a given situation. When they were kids they just obeyed inner promptings and sometimes got burned (or paddled, or scolded) just as I had. Sometimes they got away with it. Did I imagine the difference between us? Were they trying as hard as I and failing as completely? Or did they not care as much as I? A bit of both I suspect from my conversations with others (former children themselves).

Perhaps my biggest lesson in life is that there is not now, nor has there ever been, one right way. Popular is not perfect, or even good, though it can be. Outcast is not perverted, or even bad, though it can be.

Most importantly, we are all stirred up together in a pot of mystery. (Earth has a distant cousin, a Goldilocks planet like ours. Are there beings on that planet as caught up in it all as we? Trying to make sense of it all, trying to figure it out?) Truth is a weird ideal that is outside our reach.

Perhaps, success in this life is learning to surf the wildness of it all, taking a spill now and then and getting back up to face the next wave. Perhaps. Because the universe is bigger than what we can see with our eyes or imagine with our brains. The rules we make up for ourselves (and try to make for each other) only work in limited situations and there’s always something happening to invalidate the rules. Always.

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