Friday, March 1, 2013

The Letter of the Law

It's funny, at least to me, to contemplate my personality at times.

I have mentioned before
(or perhaps just in an online dating profile, when I tried such things -- so who knows where I mentioned it.... I do, after all, have the attention span of gnat.... What was I talking about? Oh yes....) 
that I am the epitome of contradictions.

Perhaps the best example is my attitude towards rules. I am -- oddly -- someone who believes very strongly in following the rules and gets nervous about breaking them; yet at the same time, I am someone who also believes strongly in the adage "It is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission."

It makes no sense, and yet it makes perfect sense. Perhaps one way to look at it is the concept of "the letter of the law" as opposed to "the spirit of the law". 

All of you, I am sure, are familiar with that concept, right? Or should some public shaming happen? (Sigh.)

Fine. I will enlighten those of you scratching your heads:
The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law is an idiomatic antithesis. When one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words (the "letter") of the law, but not the intent of those who wrote the law. Conversely, when one obeys the spirit of the law but not the letter, one is doing what the authors of the law intended, though not necessarily adhering to the literal wording.
You may read more on Wikipedia, here, but hopefully it is quite clear at this point. It is about obeying either the literal meaning behind a law (the "letter") or the about obeying the concept of the law (the "spirit").

As an aside, I actually disagree with the concept of the spirit being exactly equal to the "intent" of the law -- I'm not so sure we can always actually know what the authors of the law intended. It is why I prefer to use the terminology "concept of the law" -- as the authors intent may be very different than how we are interpreting it today.

But now you tempt me with a discourse (soap box included!) on the Constitution and the varying interpretations of it in present day, and.... I'm sure we all agree that allowing me up on a soap box, especially when politics is on the line, is a very bad idea. A very, very bad idea. Seriously.

So. To return to my original point about contradictions. And my personality. As this is all about me, right? Right?

I am on this random tangent because today I was reminded of a great anecdote from my childhood. Granted, I can't verify this anecdote, as, well, I actually don't remember it. But several of my parent's friends have told me about this, and several unrelated sources means something is true, right? Right?

Growing up, my parents threw a lot of dinner parties. They were actually amazing affairs in retrospect, as my parents were not wealthy, and unlike every one else in their professional circle, there was no "staff" to assist with regular dinner parties. Instead, my mother had several tricks she used: try to have a housecleaner come that day if possible, but if not -- as of course it's not like we had one on staff! We had no staff! -- simply dim the lights and use a lot of candles; have a couple of simple meals you can cook and don't be embarrassed to repeat them regularly -- for my mother, this was lasagna, a steak or roast of some sort with pesto tortellini from the local Italian deli, and a large salad that she called an "antipasto salad" as she would roll Italian salami and mortadella and provolone slices into cigar-like scrolls and decorate the edge of the bowl; and, of course, the most important, alcohol -- lots and lots of alcohol. Perhaps it is no wonder that my parent's dinner parties were incredibly popular....

The next most important part about my growing up was that my parents had some strict rules, especially about the times we kids were in public. The most important one was the idea that children are seen and not heard. This meant not only out in public -- ie, when they took us out to restaurants, etc -- but also "in" in public, as when my parents hosted dinner parties. The simple lesson was that we had to be on our very best behavior, obviously preferably all the time, but absolutely when others were around. As a friend of mine put it today, the idea was that it was a "privilege" to join my parents at "public events" and we had to "earn" that privilege through our behavior -- actually through a track record of behavior. And a big part of that was to be respectful, and to understand "adult time", also known as "be seen and not heard".

Well. Well..... Apparently I started my contradictions early. It seems that at one of my parent's dinner parties, when I was still young enough that the rule was a strict seen and not heard, I did exactly that: I was seen, but I was absolutely not heard....

Apparently I would appear downstairs at regular intervals in my best outfits. I believe one family friend told me that it was approximately every 15 to 20 minutes for about an hour and a half. I would walk regally down the stairs in my "finery", stroll into the living room where every one was congregated, twirl about and show off my outfit, walk very regally back to the stairs, pause dramatically to acknowledge my "audience", and then slowly ascend the staircase -- all in absolute and complete silence.

Walk, primp, acknowledge adoring fans, repeat.

And repeat.

In silence.

Letter of the law though, right? Right? Right! Which is exactly what the family friends have told me. All my parents could do was -- helplessly (snicker, snort) -- watch, shrug their shoulders, and say: Well, she's not actually breaking the rules, so we can't get mad at her, can we?

And that's the truth, isn't it? I was not breaking the "letter" of the law, though clearly I was breaking the "intent" of the law. I honored the law at the very same time that I flouted the law. And sometimes, isn't that the point?

So yes, I do honor laws, and embrace them -- in fact, I think you cannot and should not flout or disobey a law unless you understand it fully and completely. You must understand the true letter of the law in order to understand -- truly -- the spirit of the law. So without understanding the letter you cannot -- should not -- disobey it in favor of the spirit.

Ah, but once you do..... Life is in fact a world of "walk, primp, acknowledge adoring fans, repeat".

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