Rules are made to be broken

Published 9:50 pm Friday, July 5, 2019


Coffee with Mimi

There is an old saying that rules are made to be broken.  I’ve never understood the logic in that philosophy.  As a teacher and a parent, I certainly countered some inquisitive young person’s argument with a response that some activity was allowed, or not, because of a rule. 

Email newsletter signup

Of course, rules are rules for a reason.  At some point in the history of civilization, a body of persons determined that a behavior or practice was of necessity, needing to be regulated for the good of the body in question.  That was what ensured civilization.

The Code of Hammurabi was decreed in 1771 BC(E), by the Babylonian king of the same name.  The Code contained 282 laws organized by Hammurabi to better enhance civilized behavior.  The Code is considered to be among the first, and most complete, written list of laws. It handily included penalties which varied based on the status of the offenders and circumstances under which the offense was committed.   

We can thank the king for his attempt to organize his far flung and growing empire.  One which likely included citizens of many cultures, while being grateful we have advanced beyond the “eye for and eye” system of justice.  Of one thing we may be sure, King Hammurabi was pretty clear rules were not meant to be broken, though perhaps unevenly administered, within his realm.

Are rules and laws the same thing?  The ancient king attached consequences to the breaking of laws.  It’s not reasonable to think his 282 inappropriate behaviors had much wiggle room.  You and your neighbor might pay different consequences for the same infraction, but pay you would.  In Babylon, I’m sure a rule was comparable to a law, and therefore carved in stone, really carved in the case of Babylonian record keeping.

Today laws govern most everything.  For example, in the United States, the law says we drive on the right hand side of the road. The penalty for straying across the lines varies from really bad to a substantial ticket.  However, the circumstances do, in fact, matter. 

Once upon a time, many years ago, I drove on what I thought was the right side of the road.  When in fact, the street was a one way street, newly designated as such.  There I was, early on a Sunday morning, driving in the right lane of a one way street, going the wrong way.  I think I actually waved at the policeman, who was going the right way, and flapping his arm out the car window trying to draw my attention.

The story gets worse.  Right about the time I realized that I am the only vehicle going in my direction, I noticed the front end of my car was spewing steam at an alarming rate and I see the signs on the side of the street are screaming “wrong way” in symbols.  Regardless of my car issues, I was breaking the law and I was caught red handed.  On a Sunday morning, no less.  It was a college town. I imagined the policeman was used to such incidents after a Saturday night.

The police car made a U-turn, with lights and siren in full traffic stop mode.  I pulled over.  Approaching me, ticket book and pen in hand, he said, “You seem to have a problem.”  I pointed to the hood, acknowledging I did seem to.  He was not amused and pointed out that I was, in fact, going the wrong way on a one way street.  Darn, he noticed. 

Looking back on the event, I have to laugh.  The policeman was enjoying every minute of the encounter.  It was pretty obvious I was not your common wrong way street driver.  The street had been just designated one way and I was having mechanical issues and there was absolutely  no traffic on the street going in any direction (except the policeman and me) and I was driving in what was, up until very recently, the right hand driving lane of the street.   

Yes, I broke the law.  But, there were no witnesses, of the non-uniformed sort.  No one was injured, the only casualty being the obviously incapacitated car.  Aside from being petrified by my situation, I was obviously not in an impaired state on that early Sunday morning. 

I didn’t mean to break the law, an excuse used a thousand times a day, by a thousand people who break laws.  Laws aren’t meant to be broken, but sometimes they are, and it is reasonable to consider the circumstances in doling out consequences.  It is actually human to do so.  The very nice policeman called my parents, found an open service station, arranged for the car to be moved to the station and stayed with me until the simple repair was completed successfully.  I never saw the ticket book and pen again.  Come to think of it, I don’t recall if I paid for the repairs.

I broke a law. Truthfully. I don’t find references in historical texts allowing for such cases in Hammurabi’s world.  But, sometimes justice plays a different role and that is what makes for a civilized society.