Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
August 2013 - Volume 13, No. 8
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Moving On - or playing by the rules

Years ago someone commented, “A major quality of being human is our ability to disengage.” My first response involved some anxiety, with the retort, “What about commitments we’ve made?” I was thinking of marriage vows.

That’s an excellent question.  However that anxiety betrayed something else in me, a signal I’ve learned to trust over the years that points to some deeper truth here.   Anxiety, for me, is a signal that I’m avoiding or not paying sufficient attention to something important.

‘Return to the Rules’

Some years ago, a Catholic priest in a neighboring community, began sending me a number of marriage counseling clients - rejoicing that he had found an excellent resource for his parishioners in marital crisis. But then one couple involved a husband who refused to stop or correct his physical violence. The wife made the decision to end the marriage, a decision for which the priest blamed me and never made referrals to me again. Apparently my usefulness to him was limited to my unequivocal support of marriage - at all costs. I met that particular wife a few years later in another setting, and she told me that she had carried out her decision to divorce. The marital violence had continued; however, the priest never forgave her and reportedly continued favorable pastoral support of the husband - a local professional.   

It’s not that I encouraged her decision to divorce, it’s that I supported her human freedom to make that decision. Yes, it’s a freedom to disavow a sacred vow. Yes, it’s a freedom to break a committed bond (as in my estimation did the husband with his continuing physical violence).

[In the interest of full disclosure here, I myself made a similar decision many years ago to abandon my marriage commitment. So I know some of what it means to “go against the rules.”]

No (easy) answers

In life, sometimes there are no easy answers. That priest couldn’t handle that reality, and continued to hold to his “sacred rules.” I, on the other hand, am more able live within the frequent paradox of no easy answers, and sometimes no answers at all.

There are days when I can fully understand the temptation and desperation by which the psychological and medical community, when confronted by so much suffering and confusion, find it so much easier to “prescribe a pill.” That at least gives a sense of having ‘done something useful.’ Here, take this (medication) and go home and behave yourself (i.e. play by the rules). This is not to deny that often medication is a godsend for the sufferer.

A friend just wrote me, when I told her in a few days I was heading for my annual week on a remote island in Lake Michigan,

The way things are going in the world, you'll be tempted to stay on your island permanently!!  Is there space for me?

Increasingly I find many that don’t have the luxury of ‘returning to the rules.’ We are living in a time when there are so many ‘rules’ that don’t work any longer. The rules of saving for retirement were violated for many by big business a number of years ago, and that threat continues today in the halls of government. Many have borrowed against their financial future just to stay afloat in the present. The rules of honest work are not honored, and a new generation of ‘workers’ seem bereft of any effective work ethic - at least on the surface. Economic violations in the housing and employment markets leave many alienated couples living in mutual misery because a divorce is financially impossible. The political distaste for “entitlement” programs betrays a ‘reverse Robin Hood’ ethos that’s here to stay for awhile. These are just a few of the problems and anxieties that unfold in my office. I can appreciate the temptation for the license and the ethical permission to just “drug them.”

Very often my profession is expected to be the culture’s moralist and say “these are the rules, you still have to play by them.” More recently those are the only treatment plans insurance companies will sanction for mental health reimbursement.

I recall an old Portuguese proverb, “God says, take whatever you want, and then pay for it” - a true double-edged sword.

Still the freedom to move on.

So what does it mean for me to represent a human ability to disengage? How do I advise, especially when “returning to the rules” has become no longer possible? What does it mean when there’s no place left to go?

My massage therapist regularly works out the painful knots in my body that come from what she calls “carrying home the problems of my clients.” I’ve been seeing her regularly for years now.

Perhaps a better question would be this: What do I believe in that keeps me sane?

I do believe in the human ability to disengage, to move on. Even when it makes no sense - or better, when nothing else makes any sense.

The Jesus of the Gospel narratives would frequently say to his inquirers, “You have to let it all go.”  (My own rough translation.)

Moving on.

What do we move on toward? My favorite big-word answer word is “autonomy” - becoming our own person, the one responsible for my own life. Autonomy means “having its/our own laws.” You can begin to see why I have counterpoised it to “playing by the rules (of others).”

These questions usually come from within a place of struggle, rarely does “moving on” just emerge from an ease of choice. It was once wired in to our national character - as a nation of immigrants, a nation of pioneers, a nation of autonomous individualists, a nation of hard workers, a nation of visionaries.

What happened? My quick answer is the pre-eminence of financial greed, which has now finally become able to trump almost any other social contract. Yet, our own culture in this place began with the near genocide of the Original People of this land. The potential poison of greed without conscience has been lurking around these haunts for a long time.

The human ability to disengage, to move on when the time and the necessity call, brings out that which is most human in our citizens - character, compassion, loyalty, work ethic, self-sacrifice.  It also can lead to defeat, collapse, and a death of the spirit.

In a strange logical twist, moving on toward autonomy makes us even more our brother’s keeper.

An interesting example is the City of Detroit. The people of the suburbs, often those who themselves abandoned the City, want the boundaries set so they can retain their prosperity separate from Detroit. ‘Lock up the damned City and let it rot!’ (which has almost happened). Yet when the center of something rots, the entire organism eventually dies. Suburban Detroit lost much of its own soul years ago - and I notice it effecting my own hometown, just an hour’s drive away.

But even out here, there’s word of numerous hardy folk, who as individuals, groups, neighborhoods, cooperatives, are mustering courage to build something new in the City. There’s a spirit in Detroit that refuses to play by the rules of racism, of government dysfunction and corruption, and of bankruptcy economics. And I’m beginning to hear great stories about the nightlife there. It’s going to take a lot of time and patience and hope and hard work, and spirit. There are a lot of people who do care for the City, and for what an alive city can do well.

I like to think that I have some of that same spirit in my own life.

When I don’t have answers, I don’t have to pretend that I do. But I will stay with you, and struggle with you, and encourage you, and honor your spirit. And I will let you go when you are ready to move on from your work with me.


By the way, one understanding I have of marriage has it no longer that it is a ‘rule’ by which we must play.  It is a daily commitment that is meant for “life.” When it is fed well, there is life in abundance within its wondrous mysteries. Yet there are times when that same hunger for “life” or “necessity” can call us to move on - even apart from the marriage - especially in the face of violation and betrayal. Yes, it can be “against the rules.”


Life, and Rules are sometimes not the same - sometimes there’s not even a logical connection. Lets be more willing to live in that space between.  And when it comes to a choice for me, I’m getting more and more used to serving the side of Life.

I have moved on many times in my life. It seems a prominent theme. And I continually ponder whether I am called again. It’s quite possible, always quite possible. I am still learning to...

Pay attention

Comments (2)

  • Rules....Laws

    The Bible tells us that “the letter of the law killeth, and the spirit brings life.” You hit it on the head when you say that we are all a rule unto ourselves. Hopefully the right spirit will guide us and it being an unselfish spirit. I do not believe that God expects a wife to beaten on by her husband, or a spouse to be abandoned emotionally or physically by the other. When God said “Thou shalt not steal.” David stole the show bread out of the temple to feed his men and God said he was a man of God’s heart. Rahab lied to save the disciples and hers was the only household saved when Jericho was torn down.

    It should never be about WHAT a person does but WHY did they do it. Some rules simply cannot apply in today’s world.h

    — Barbara, 8/2/2013
  • Thank you

    Thank you Bill for your article on Movig On or Playing By the Rules. I have moved on and for years have suffered with the guilt of breaking up the family and have been completely rejected by my ex husbands family. Over 26years of verbal and mental abuse to me and my children and when I finally made the decision that it is not Ok to be treated in that way, everyone around family and friends all seem to forget the situation and I became the bad guy. In my heart I know the decision was right and thank you for re-enforcing that for me.

    — Wendy, 8/1/2013

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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