We call it The Great Missouri Road Trip, and it happened last fall. My mom, my sister and I spent almost a week visiting old family places in Missouri: my mom’s girlhood homes, old cemeteries, the tiny bank building where my grandparents met. We also toured the gorgeous State Capitol in Jefferson City and generally had a wonderful time. Heading home through Arkansas, we stopped around 3:00 p.m. for a fuel/restroom break. When we saw the Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream counter inside, we looked at each other. It was unanimous — ice cream for three, please. The ice cream lady asked each of us whether we wanted a cup or a cone. Mom hesitated a minute and then asked for a cone.
As we stood around eating and bragging about how good the ice cream was, Mom shook her head with a self-deprecating laugh. “Look at me,” she said, “eating an ice cream cone like a little kid!” It struck me that in her mind, cones were for Children, while Grown-ups ate their ice cream from a Bowl. Getting a sugar cone for her ice cream was a genuine adventure for her; a little mild recklessness or rebellion. I later mentioned this to my sis and told her that Mom seemed to carry a lot of rules in her head.
Days after the trip ended, I thought about it again and realized that many of Mom’s “rules” have nothing to do with integrity or morality. Rather, they are mere conventions that arose somewhere in generations past. There is no logical reason for the cone/cup age-appropriateness idea, but that was probably the convention she grew up with. Like not wearing white after Labor Day, or how women used to never go out without a hat or gloves or whatever.
I remember Mom telling me about how her own mother would never wear sleeves above the elbow, even in their un-air-conditioned house in summer, because she was “too old.” Mom recognizes how unnecessary that convention was, but she is still bound by others equally needless. For instance, when she and Dad started attending a new church in my hometown, a friend invited Mom to sit with her during the service. This lady always sat on the left side of the auditorium. Mom kept sitting by her week after week, although she really wanted to sit toward the right, where she could watch the organist play and see the keyboard. One day she told me how frustrated and disappointed she felt about the situation. I suggested she just tell her friend that she wanted to watch the organist, and invite her to sit with her along the right-hand side. Mom shook her head. “I can’t,” she said. “That’s just not done.” Mom cheated herself out of enjoying part of the church service because she felt trapped by some impersonal expectation that the friend herself probably had no idea of.
The habit of blindly following conventions would not trap people if there were not a certain attraction in doing so. One thing about conventions: they keep you from having to make decisions. An indecisive person can just fall back on the “rules” and blend in with everyone else. For someone who grew up with adults making all the decisions, it is an easy way to maintain that hands-off approach to your own life.
Of course, I would not advocate just doing exactly as you please all the time, with no regard for anyone else. And of course, conventions are not always bad. Many of them are just mutual agreements to help us know how to act around each other, so everyone knows what to expect. They can lubricate society and help us make each other comfortable. Here in the US, we shake hands when we meet someone. Everyone drives on the right (left would work just as well if we all did it). When you sit down to a meal, you expect to find the food on dishes, with flatware for eating it.
Next time you feel that you “must” or “mustn’t” do something a certain way, try asking yourself why. Is there a valid principle behind that feeling, or just an outdated or needless convention? Here are a few for practice . . .
1. My shoes must match my purse. (convention)
2. I must not steal the neighbor’s lawn mower. (principle)
3. If I wear a skirt and dress shoes, I must wear pantyhose with them. (convention)
4. I must not wear pantyhose, even with a skirt and dress shoes. (more recent convention)
5. I must not spread hurtful rumors. (principle)
6. On Thursday, I must do all the ironing. (really old convention — even before my time!)
I want to be aware of why I do what I do, and keep convention in its proper place. Where convention and God’s clear instructions conflict, I want to follow God. I don’t want to get frozen into letting old habits — or my culture –think for me.
Well, gotta go. It’s Monday, so I must do all the laundry. —JUST KIDDING!
Thanks for reading!