Tennis has some basic rules. Hit the ball before it bounces twice so that it lands on or inside the lines. That’s basically it, with a lot of fine-tuning (serving rules, net cord rules, double-hit rules, and so on).
Beyond these rules, tennis is what we make of it. A select few pursue it for fame and fortune. For many, it’s a fun, social way to get healthy exercise. For a smaller yet sizable group, it’s a dojo for pursuing excellence. And so on.
Beyond the rules, in other words, tennis is what you make of it. It’s the clay and you’re the ceramist.
Unlike tennis, life’s rules are not laid out for us. We absorb them unconsciously from our environment. Of course, there have been many efforts to make them explicit. The Ten Commandments, for example. But external mandates tend to backfire. All too often, all they do is stir up resentment, rebellion, and middle-finger disregard. People who are raised under the flag of ‘thou shalt not’ are often the most hypocritical of all.
If you disregard the rules of tennis, you’ll probably have trouble finding people to play with. Life doesn’t bring those limitations. If you want to commit murder, you can probably find someone to to do it with.
It’s clear how you win at tennis — the rules lay it out in black and white. In life, it’s not so clear. There’s no manual or rulebook — we have no choice but to devise our own. Some people think you win by dominating and oppressing. Others believe in love and service.
History can be seen as a perennial steelcage match between these two teams — between, if you will, the Tyrants and the Saints. It’s a timeless contest that pits ‘win or die’ versus ‘love conquers all.’
Until I sat down to write this meditation, I’d never seriously pondered what my life rules were — an odd oversight given my philosophical bent, but there it is. Now that I ask myself this question, the answer leaps out at me.
Know your truth.
Speak your truth.
Be kind to people (including yourself).
It took me many years of adulthood, many years of parsing through the mixed messages delivered by our culture, to get to these simple precepts and to learn how to share them more effectively than not.
Abiding by them isn’t slam-dunk simple — there are twists and turns in there. George Orwell wrote, “Freedom is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.” Well said, George — but how do you get them to actually consider what you’re saying? How does a person speak their truth kindly? A level of communication artistry is required that I work to get better at every day.
Simplicity doesn’t precede complexity — it follows it. I’ve learned this the long, slow, hard way.
I’ve learned something else as well — when you know what the rules are, the game is easier to play.
Do you know what your life-rules are? Can you state them in a few short sentences? Do you live them along with believing in them?