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How the laws we make for ourselves make us miserable

The movie begins five minutes from now, and the theater is 20 minutes away. I’m pacing by the front door. After looking at my watch, I rub my eyes with the palms of my hands. Then I look at my watch again. I call upstairs to my date, “Are you almost ready? It’s time to go.”

“Just a minute,” she responds.” I wait 10. She emerges from the bedroom and glides down the staircase. “We’re just going to miss the previews. It’ll be fine.”

I drive in silence toward the theater next to my date. Stopping at a red light, I squeeze the steering wheel and shake my head slowly.

Outside the theater, I can’t seem to find a parking spot. I drive in circles thinking that if I miss the opening scene of the movie, I might not catch up to the storyline. And I’m certain we will be sitting on the front row way off to the side.

I ask my date how it is possible that we are so late. Maybe we should just give up and drive home. We eventually walk into the dim theater and scrape past other moviegoers on the way to our terrible seats. I may not be the ideal date in such situations.

The necessity of law

The law is a system of rules governing behavior. These rules are enforced through threat of punishment. Law is a necessary underpinning of society, and each community has official and unspoken rules that regulate the conduct of its participants. It influences individual behavior and every kind of social interaction. Law has a civilizing effect on all those covered by it. 1

Imagine attempting to do business with an alien from a distant planet. How would you negotiate without causing offense? What is the medium of exchange? How would you know the deal is sealed? What are your options if the deal is broken? Does the alien even have a concept of property ownership and the exchange of goods and services? It would be impossible to make a deal without establishing a mutually agreeable set of rules.

There are three kinds of laws that guide interpersonal interactions: natural law,2 community (or positive) law,3 and personalized law (I made this one up). Let’s do a quick overview of all three.

  Created by Enforced by Escape possible?
 Natural law Nature or God The law itself No
Community law Community agreement The system & community members Yes
Personalized law Self Self No (while it persists)

Natural law

Natural law is a system of rules with benefits and punishments that exist whether or not there is an organization in place to enforce it. With natural law, the punishment is affixed and outside of anyone’s control. When you break a natural law, you feel remorse of conscience, and your relationships are strained.

The punishment arrives immediately after you break a statute of natural law. If you steal a stuffed boar’s head off the wall of your local tavern for example, a part of you recognizes that your actions hurt other people. You justify your behavior by demonizing your victims. This further damages your perspective of others – even if no one knows you are the thief, and your society accepts that stealing is acceptable in certain circumstances.

We come to understand natural law through our own experience and education, and the benefits of obedience persist as long as you comply. People generally recognize the innate benefits of forgiveness, gratitude, kindness, and other positive character attributes. They also see the harmful effects of violating the natural law through vindictiveness, ingratitude, and cruelty.

Community law

A community law is established when two or more people settle on the rules of engagement. Individuals in this new community agree (or are coerced) to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to a set of rules.4 They can do so through a contract, a constitution, a treaty, a handshake, a verbal agreement, or even tacit consent. Community laws exist for governments, families, businesses, churches, baseball leagues, and every other type of society.

Children, for example, learn the household rules through their experiences at home. Parents punish an offending child and explain the rules to him while siblings look on. When my toddler threw a berry smoothy at the curtains, he quickly learned the rule that we do not throw food or hard objects inside the house.

Members of the community hold each other accountable for violating official and unspoken rules. If a community has an enforcement arm (think police departments, court houses and prison), it does not have to rely exclusively on community members to keep each other in line. You can avoid most consequences of community law though if you can evade detection.

There is one consequence of violating community law that you cannot avoid: the loss of membership. To violate a community law is to dissolve your connection to that community. You do not abandon a community by breaking one of its rules on a single occasion though. Each time you break the law, the community members distance themselves from you through punishment or exclusion, and you reject your membership in the community by distancing yourself from its system of rules. You leave it by degrees with every rule you break – until one day you reject the entire law and feel like you no longer belong to the community.

As you understand a community’s rules and comply with them, you will be more accepted by the group. You will feel a greater sense of belonging and build a greater capacity to initiate new members. As the needs of the community evolve, you may be able to influence changes to the law.

Personalized law

Personalized law is a set of rules that you create for yourself and for those around you. Because you make up your personalized law, you are the one to hold yourself and others accountable. If you do not punish violators and reward obedience, no one else will. You mourn your law when it is broken and are merely content when it is obeyed. You might cajole, shame, and manipulate those around you into following your inventions or pout silently when they resist.

Personalized law can be helpful. People who wake up every day at a certain time, for example, are generally more productive and healthier than those who do not.5 Personalized law can also be unnecessarily restrictive and burdensome. Imagine how terrible it would be if you decided to never leave the safety of your home.

You have no right to hold others to your personalized law. If you attempt to do so, you and those around you will be frustrated. It is better to ask for what you want, and if you receive it, to treat the service as a gift.

The moment someone else accepts a set of rules or you accept theirs, you become a community following community law. At that point, you can hold other members to it. Do not assume though that those close to you have embraced your law.

Overlapping laws

The community leaders once presented a woman before Jesus who was caught committing adultery. The leaders posed the following question, “The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” The community rule was that such offenders should be stoned to death. Jesus bent down and did not respond for a time, but the men continued to press him. He then stood up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The accusers felt ashamed and left one by one. After seeing that no one was left to carry out the sentence, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”6

In this, Christ distanced himself from the Jewish community law while recommending that the woman reap the benefits of obeying the natural law. He refused to heap additional layers of punishment onto someone who was already suffering from the effects of natural law and the scorn of her community.

Community and personalized laws are often established to inflict greater consequences on rulebreakers than those that occur naturally. A parent washes a child’s mouth out for lying. A government hangs a murderer. A teenager punches a classmate for mistreating his sister. These examples raise the question, “Are the effects of natural law sufficient to disincentivize bad behavior or are more rules and punishments required?”

Community and personalized laws are also set up as a protective fence to keep individuals from violating the central natural law. For example, those who follow the “Billy Graham rule”7 avoid one-on-one meetings with members of the opposite sex. Although there is no natural rule preventing these individuals from having one-on-one meetings, they believe these fences around the law will help them avoid committing adultery. This raises a second question, “Are your fences around the law helping you comply with the central law or are they getting in the way?”

Different communities sometimes have complementary laws. The moral codes of a religion for example may not conflict with the secular laws of a country. So an individual could happily belong to both groups. In cases where the rules of two or more communities conflict though, participants must choose which set of rules and which community to prioritize. Which groups are most important to you?

What to do with all your laws

Personalized laws can be adopted or discarded at any time. Natural law is inescapable, but we have some influence over which communities we belong to. We may not be able to move to a new country or choose our family in the short run. In the long run though, we can move and build our own family community. And thank goodness law does not cover all facets of life and every circumstance. We have wiggle room to make decisions and experiment.

I recently began to question my personalized laws. I realized that I have a rule stating that I must be punctual. If I keep the law, I maintain the semblance of control and am less likely to annoy people waiting for me. Keeping this law is important in my business community but less so in other contexts. When I am running late, I subtly punish myself and those keeping me from my appointments.

It is time for me to downgrade my law to a guideline. I still prefer arriving at the requested time and am grateful to those who arrive at my events on time as well. I will not punish myself for being late though or punish others for holding me back.

Understand the laws embedded in your mind and in your heart. Are they helpful? Are they a reflection of natural law, are you enforcing the rules of your community, or are you just making stuff up? Are you holding others accountable and punishing them for rules that they never accepted? A thorough evaluation of law can result in greater happiness and more successful participation in your communities.

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