Has the rallying cry, “Rules are made to be broken!” gone too far? What happens when the yearning to be different and stand out from the crowd ends up degrading into a compulsive need to break any rules, even the decent ones? How petty can the need to feel empowered get?
Jogging along a beautiful refreshing country road the other morning, reveling in the sunny sky, rolling grassy fields all around, a distant lake view, I glanced down and was visually assaulted by trash thrown out onto the shoulder. It took a few moments to register what I was looking at, because I’d long ago accepted that this type of litter was extinct. But there it was, not one, but two 6-pack plastic ring beverage holders. What person under the age of 50 hasn’t been schooled in the dangerous threat this type of plastic holder presents to wildlife that get their heads caught up in the holes and strangle or starve to death? Who doesn’t know that before you dispose of these holders you cut them up to ensure there are no intact rings to harm some innocent duck or bunny? What about the even simpler social (and legal) agreement to not litter at all? What can be so incredibly difficult about hanging onto your trash until you can find an appropriate place to dump it? Such questions are pointless, because this spiteful act of defiance is not about facts or difficulty; it’s about false empowerment.
What thoughts run through the mind of a person who would toss these plastic holders out onto a beautiful country road? Maybe things like: I can do anything I want. I don’t give a hoot about wildlife. I’m not going to bow to social rules. I don’t care what anyone else thinks about me. You can’t tell me what to do. I don’t care about the world. Being bad is funny, or cool. Let someone else clean up my mess. Dig a little deeper, and maybe you can find more revealing motives: I’m angry. I’m feeling helpless. I’m being treated like trash in my job, my family, my love life. I can’t control how badly the world treats me, but I can control how badly I treat the world. Is tossing trash a weak attempt to reclaim some delusional sense of being in control and having power over the world? I can only guess. I don’t get this type of behavior, but as I picked up the trash and carried it the rest of my run, brought it home, cut it up and disposed of it properly, I felt sad wondering what must be going on in the heart of someone who does this. It made me wonder about all the other ways we’re committing petty acts of “rule breaking” to create a false sense of empowerment.
I took my question to the Internet and came across a revealing confession that confirmed my fears. I present this post by a young woman verbatim:
If there’s a rule and I don’t know the reason for it, I’ll break it. If we’re not allowed to chew gum, I will. If we can’t leave at a certain time, I’ll just use a fire exit and screw the consequences. Whenever we sit down in a classroom I have the urge to just get up and walk out (and I do sometimes). If someone tells me off I shout back, and I argue with people of authority constantly. I don’t necessarily seek superiority over figures of authority, but I do seek independance and I hate being told what to do, if it’s ONLY suiting other people and it’s inconveniencing me.
There were many replies to this post echoing the same compulsive need to defy restraints, especially if there was no direct reward for them for restraining or complying. The most interesting thing about these proclamations of defiance was that they were followed by admissions that they couldn’t help themselves. They just have to do it to feel better. Missing was any sense of reward or honor for showing respect or empathy for others.
When did being considerate and respectful or other acts traditionally considered to be “the right thing” become the wrong thing to do, while embracing rudeness, violence, meanness, cheating, corruption, and defiance all become the path to empowerment and bolstering self-esteem? Empowerment is intended to bring out the best in people, yes? To make them stronger and more confident? Somehow, empowerment has become distorted into doing acts of defiance for its own sake. But, for what reward, really?
If you see, as I see, this simple act of littering as disappointing, perhaps even disgusting, do you have the same reaction to the growing spread of emotional and intellectual litter being strewn throughout our television shows, movies, and advertisements? Are these things empowering? There is a constant parade of poor behavior being celebrated daily – Bridezillas, Mistresses, Devious Maids, cut throat children’s dance or beauty competitions, survival imitation “reality” shows that reward back-stabbing and deception, “historical” dramas modeling murder and crime as vehicles to power, commercials featuring slapping, punching, even brawling in an uninspired attempt at humor, people jumping into bed with strangers or other people’s spouses. Even once wholesome cooking, crafting and baking shows have degenerated into angry trash-talking confrontations where winning is all that matters. Some of this media litter is just ugly, but some of it actually presents a dangerous threat as it promotes a culture of indifference to others and deterioration of decency and honor.
Is there really freedom in defiance for it’s own sake? We can recognize trash along the roadside, but have we lost sight of it piling up in front of our eyes on televisions and computer screens? Do we really want to promote the message that tearing down is the only way left to build yourself up? I picked up the trash left behind by someone else, and I felt empowered. Sure, the culprit may laugh to themselves that they’ve “won,” because someone else had to clean up their mess; but I “won,” because I wasn’t going to allow the weak act of someone else defile my world. They may find “power” in trashing my world, but what is that reward for them, really, compared to mine? They made the world uglier; I restored it to beauty, just as I have the power to turn the channel and not allow others to pollute my mind and heart.
Sort out what actions in your life are truly empowering from what may have a brief shallow thrill at the moment, but ultimately fill your heart and spirit with trash.