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135. The Joy of Breaking Rules

The last time I wrote to you it was about the hidden rules we have for other people, and what happens when they break them. This time it's about breaking rules, something that everyone should do from time to time! 'When I am an old woman I shall wear purple With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me. And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter. I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells And run my stick along the public railings And make up for the sobriety of my youth. I shall go out in my slippers in the rain And pick flowers in other people's gardens And learn to spit.' From 'Warning' by Jenny Joseph (for the full poem and some interesting tidbits about the author, click here ) Does it surprise you that this poem was, in 1996, voted the UK's most popular post-war poem, even beating Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night? And does it surprise you that Dylan Thomas's poem was up there too? Is it just a coincidence that both poems are about breaking rules, saying 'no', refusing to quietly accept what we have been told we must do? I doubt it. When I was a child of around eight or nine, I shared a bedroom with my younger sister, me on the top bunk, she on the bottom. My brother, who was four years older, had a bedroom of his own. Between my bedroom and my parents' was a cupboard which opened into both rooms. At our end there was quite a big door and we used the space inside for hanging clothes. At my parents' end the door was only about two and a half foot square. It was hard to know why it was there at all. My father was a quick-witted, charming man, good looking and sporty, but he had a temper that was easily aroused and I was careful not to annoy him. One cold winter's night my brother played a practical joke. He had taped a series of random noises and put the tape recorder under my parents' bed. Having had an excellent education on such things at his prep boarding school, he rigged up some string on my parents' bedclothes which, when tugged, would relieve them of all cover. He ran the string, and the electric cable, through the door, down the corridor, and into his bedroom. In the early hours of the morning he turned on the tape recorder and pulled the string. If he was hoping to annoy my father, he was not disappointed. My father was incandescent. He shouted. He swore. Finding himself coverless and cold, he stormed to the door with the objective of finding the culprit, only to find it was locked. He shouted some more. 'Open this door!' he roared. My brother was not that stupid. Meanwhile I was wide awake in my bed, racked with glee, but safely under the covers. I suddenly heard a banging in the cupboard. Oh no, my father was trying to get through! He knocked his head, his elbows, his knees, against the top and the sides of the cupboard. Each time he shouted and swore some more. Eventually he tumbled out at our end and I saw his silhouette storming across the room to the door. Down the corridor he strode, to my brother's room. The door was locked. My brother had thought the whole thing through, in perfect detail. That was my first experience of insurrection, and even now I can feel the delight of it. Most of us are in favour of rules, they keep us safe, they tell us what to do, they keep us out of trouble. But they can also have a very dampening effect on our psyches. In Oliver Sack's book, Britain on the Couch, he talks about some research that showed how, in a troop of baboons, subordinate males have lower than usual levels of serotonin, the hormone that lightens our mood. It is thought the reason for this is evolutionary - it keeps subordinate males in their place, making them a little too depressed to raise a challenge to the chief male, but still able to function usefully in the group. It is the same with humans. When we're in situations in which we feel powerless, rule-bound, we suppress ourselves. When we're children we have little or no power. When we're adults we have more power, it's true, but even then there are all kinds of rules we have to obey in order to be accepted and to get on in adult society. We have to pay our taxes, be respectful to our bosses, carve ourselves into suitable shapes for job applications, eat nicely at table, wear conventional clothes, drive on the appropriate side of the road, take exams, be polite to people we don't like, refrain from hitting people who hurt us. Most of the time we don't even realize how much we're suppressing; it takes a good story for us to get in touch with the parts of us we've restrained. I went to boarding school myself, from the age of thirteen. We had rules coming out of our ears. A bell woke us at 7, another called us to breakfast at half past, another told us it was time to leave for school. There was a notice by the back door telling us what to wear that day. We had to walk in two's and were not allowed to walk alone. We had a bath twice a week, by rota. There was a day we had to clean two pairs of shoes, and a day we had to clean four. There was a day we changed our bed linen, a day we wrote letters home, and had them checked. We were allowed outings twice a term, and no more. We were not allowed to call home other than in an emergency. We were not allowed to leave the premises, other than to go to school. We went to church every Sunday. For three years I was very good. At the age of sixteen something inside rebelled. I went out for walks in the evening, by myself. I argued with my house mistress. I skipped church. While everybody else was sitting in some cold church, listening to some vicar drone on and on, my friend and I were whizzing round on the waltzers in the local park, screaming with laughter and hanging on for dear life. It is hard to convey the joy that these antics gave me, not the activities themselves, but the feeling of sheer freedom that accompanied them. The other day I ran a learning set with some senior public health colleagues. These are difficult times for public health. In one department all the staff had been sent letters of dismissal, with invitations to apply for their jobs, which had been regraded and salaries reduced by up to twenty percent. Another department had just been told that half of their jobs were 'at risk', a euphemism for saying that they were about to be made redundant. Another was dealing with some ludicrous new management systems that were making it more or less impossible to do the job. The atmosphere was supportive but spirits were low. About ten minutes before the end I asked them this question: If you could do anything you wanted, say anything you wanted, to whoever you wanted, what would you do? There was a long silence. People looked a bit non-plussed. Then somebody spoke. 'I would go into a board meeting with a large dinner set,' she said, 'and I would drop it on the floor. I would point at it and say to the board members, 'this is what you're doing to the people here! This is what it feels like!' ' As she spoke, colour came into her cheeks, and her eyes lit up. Almost immediately someone else came up with an ingenious and time-consuming Freedom of Information request for her employer. Another had an idea, and another. Before long the whole room was delirious with delight. Gone were the long faces, the hanging heads, the hopelessness. Instead there was laughter, energy, happiness. There is a very important difference between what happened in that room and the stories above. The people in that room had actually done none of those things, they'd simply imagined them. An untapped source of power and good cheer? I think so. Try this: 1. Think of something in your life that is suboptimal. A person you don't appreciate, some changes at work you don't approve of, some hurt, something you don't want to do but have to, some plan scuppered. 2. If you could do or say anything in response to this person or situation, what would it be? Please do not restrain yourself with thoughts of disciplinary action, reputations destroyed, or prison sentences. Feel free to be childish, malignant, violent or downright silly. 3. If not there already, find a quiet space, alone, and pretend you are doing that thing for real. Speak it out loud, shout, swear, tell someone exactly what you think of them, punch that face, break every rule in the book. Enjoy! The last line of Jenny Joseph's poem is this: 'But maybe I ought to practice a little now?' Have a joyful week! with love Anita

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