Saturday April 1, 2017, Layover at Denver International Airport, Denver, Colorado
My daughter was six years old when she discovered the disparity between two opposing normative systems. The two of us were traveling home through the Swan Valley of northwestern Montana at midsummer. I was driving. She was napping in the back seat. As we passed through a particularly heavily-forested part of the drive, I saw a young black bear crossing the pavement. My daughter had seen black and grizzly bears before. But the novelty of finding these beautiful animals never diminishes for her or me, and so I slowed to a stop and woke my daughter. We watched the little bear lumber across the road.
My daughter asked if we should get out and spray it with pepper spray. I had taken her hiking in bear country before, and she knew the protocol: bear spray was the first line of defense against an aggressive bear. I told her we would leave this bear alone, that he wasn’t bothering us. I think she mostly just wanted to get out of the car and get a closer look. The bear sauntered into the woods, and we drove on through the wide valley.
Now my daughter was wide awake, alert to every shadow and movement along the road and in the forest. But we found no more bears, and soon her attention turned from the road and forest to a little round container of mints. I looked in the rearview mirror from time to time, watching her turn and handle the container. She appeared to be deciphering the writing on the label. My own attention turned to the road and to arriving safely home.
– – –
My daughter had become quiet; I thought she had fallen asleep again, but when I glanced in the rearview mirror, she was still deciphering the words on the little container. A few minutes later she said, “Dad, I think they put this sticker on backwards.”
I asked her what sticker she meant, and she held up the small container of mints. The container had two openings through which to dispense the mints. She said that on the small opening were printed the words TO SHARE and on the large opening were printed the words NOT TO SHARE.
I waited to hear her reasoning. She said that if she only wanted one mint for herself, she would use the small opening, and that if she were going to share the mints, she would obviously use the larger opening to allow more mints to come out.
This is the moment she discovered the disparity between two opposing normative systems – her own and that of the mint maker. A normative system is simply a set of standards associated with a set of consequences. A board game contains a normative system. In Monopoly®, for example, when you roll the dice and get a nine, you move your piece nine spaces. That is the standard. If you happen to land on a high-rent property owned by a competitor, you have to pay the rent. That is the consequence.
There are many normative systems. Even the natural world contains a normative system: rattlesnakes are venomous (that’s a well-known standard), and if you grab one by the body, it will likely bite you (that’s a well-known consequence).
The mint container had a specific set of instructions or standards, a normative system: share through the small opening, don’t share though the large opening. One consequence of sharing through the small opening was obvious: one mint would fall out instead of many. The large opening would dispense many.
As we drove along that road, my daughter thought long on resolving the disparity between the two normative systems: her own and the mint maker’s. The mint maker’s normative system established that the my daughter should use the small opening to share mints and the large opening to dispense mints to herself.
I don’t know if the mint maker intended to be stingy by sharing mints through the small opening. Perhaps this was a mechanism to keep hands and fingers out of the container, to limit the germs that might otherwise spread through the mints.
Or, maybe the mint maker was stingy. Who knows?
What became important to me was that my daughter didn’t agree with the mint maker’s standard, with the mint maker’s normative system, no matter the mint maker’s intent. My daughter had her own system, and it reflected her generosity. She determined to not enter the mint maker’s normative system; she would share mints through the large opening.
Soon she was asleep again, holding the container in her hands and lap. I drove on through the valley, and my thoughts remained on the dilemma my daughter had just resolved. Her dilemma was mine, or at least a microcosm of a much larger dilemma that all adults must resolve for themselves.
It is the ineluctable question of every generation: which normative system will I choose to follow?
At the outset, the choice may be clear. However, the answer is confounded by one hard reality: by making a choice to follow one normative system, we are still subject to the consequences of the other normative system, the one we didn’t choose.
For example, my daughter chose to establish her own normative system: she decided that she would share mints through the larger opening of the container. In her system, the standard of greater generosity would guide her choices. This would allow her to share on her terms, not on those of the mint maker. However, if she dispensed the mints through the larger opening, she would run the risk of having fewer mints for herself. Though she were following her own normative system, and not the mint maker’s, she was still subject to a consequence the mint maker had anticipated: prematurely running out of mints (I’m assuming ungenerous intent by the mint maker).
When she chose to follow her own normative system (based on the standard of generosity and the positive consequences of joy, happiness, peace), a negative consequence of not following the mint maker’s system was still in force (she would run out of mints sooner, or have fewer for herself).
At her core, in her heart of hearts, I think she understood this. Even as a six-year-old, she recognized that the risk of running out of mints was insignificant compared to the perils of not living a generous life. She chose generosity even in the face of scarcity.
When we choose a normative system, we are not only choosing how we will conduct ourselves, how we will live our lives, but we are also deciding if the negative consequences of the other normative system, the one we didn’t choose, are tolerable. And, we will have to tolerate them.
Consider the example below of two mutually exclusive normative systems presupposed in the idiom keeping up with the Joneses. Though I will follow one system at the exclusion of the other, I am still subject to the consequences of both systems. How I proceed, which system I choose to follow, is my choice. The consequences of both systems, however, are inescapable.
The Joneses have just bought a large and expensive waterski boat – one that I cannot afford. If I want to “keep up” with the Joneses, I need to buy a boat at least as large as theirs. The normative system that is driving my boat purchase may be nothing more than my own mental construct arising from some insecurity. No one else may care if I have the same boat. But then again, someone might, and so I will feed my insecurity with the purchase. This is the first normative system – one of keeping up appearances, one of competition. The standard is to own whatever my neighbor owns, and perhaps more. The positive consequence within this system is that I have increased social standing (whether imagined or real) with my neighbors. But I also receive the negative consequence of the second normative system: I may have jeopardized my financial stability.
The second normative system, and one that is in opposition to the first, is founded on established, sound financial principles. I this normative system I choose to save the money I would have spent on the boat, and, over the next few months or years, I put it toward something that my neighbors will never see – maybe I pay off my house earlier or I make an annual donation to charity or I put the money in the bank, anticipating a financial rainy day. In this normative system I reap the positive consequences of earlier home ownership or satisfaction in the charitable donation or a sense of financial stability.
But I also reap the consequences of my not choosing to participate in the first normative system. By adhering to the standard of the second normative system (paying off house, making charitable donation, saving the money), I am departing from the standard of the first normative system (buying the boat), and now I have to face the consequences of a system in which I did not care or choose to participate: I lose social status among my neighbors, I’m not keeping up with the Joneses.
Another way to look at opposing normative systems is to simply put one person’s principles next to those of a peer. A person must choose to live by his or her own principles (one normative system) or to follow another’s (another normative system), which may present as peer pressure.
David Kilcullen, author of Out of the Mountains, characterized this unbreakable bond between the safety of one system and the parallel danger of an opposing system, in the context of war. He said: “This system of norms and sanctions defines the boundaries of permissible behavior… It makes the behavioral space inside its boundaries a safe zone for those who follow its rules, while the space that lies outside the boundaries becomes deeply unsafe.”
In short, when I pay off my house rather than buy the boat, I gain more financial security, but I also lose social status (real or imagined). The two systems are inseparable. I just have to decide if the positive consequences of the system I choose are worth the pain I may feel for not following the standard of the opposing system, which I did not choose.
– – –
Mints and waterski boats may have minor bearings on our moral character and our financial fate. But they illuminate a greater dilemma, and the earlier question: which normative system will I choose to follow?
Which normative systems can possibly be so consequential as to demand a choice? There are only two of enduring consequence. They have many names, but I think Joshua, of the-walls-came-tumbling-down fame, hinted at them when he told the Israelites to make up their minds on whom to serve.
Jesus of Nazareth was more direct, clearly stating that the two normative systems were in complete opposition. No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.
Peter was briefly caught between two normative systems, having chosen both within the same night. On one hand he said he would stand with his friend, even die with him. On the other, he denied knowing him. Ultimately he chose his friend, and paid dearly for his choice – having most likely himself been crucified at Rome. Peter’s martyrdom was a result of him choosing to not abide by the standards of a normative system in which he did not intend to participate – that of the Romans. Yet he was still subject to the consequences.
Samuel, who selected David to succeed Saul as king in Israel, learned that man’s normative system would lead to selecting a new king based on visible and tangible signals, not necessarily reliable indicators of character. He also learned that a better normative system existed, one that relied on deeper observations, more meaningful and useful observations – those made on a person’s heart.
Though we walk in the same two opposing normative systems, we eventually have to choose which system to follow, which standard to attain. One is temporal. The other is enduring. Peter lived in these two normative systems. And, like Peter, we cannot escape the consequences of either one. But, like Peter, we can choose which one to follow, which set of standards to obey, which set of consequences to enjoy, and which to suffer.
– – –
There is an account in Hindu and Buddhist tradition of two monks walking across the open country. They arrived at a river and rested before crossing. While they were at the river, one of them knelt to drink. As he knelt, he noticed a scorpion caught in the flow, thrashing and struggling against the current. He reached into the water and lifted the scorpion in his open palm. As he let the scorpion go free on the bank, it stung him and he cried out in pain.
Later, after the monks had crossed the river, and as they continued their journey, the other monk asked the first monk, “why did you help that scorpion out of the river? Now your hand is swollen and you are in pain.”
“Because it was going to drown,” the first monk replied.
“But it stung you,” said the other monk. “Do you not know this is what scorpions do? This is their nature; to sting you is their nature.”
“I wanted to help another living creature,” the first monk said. “That is my nature. To help is my nature.”
– – –
For a moment I looked into the back seat again. My daughter slept as I drove us homeward. She held the container of mints in her little hands, ready to share. On her terms. Through the larger opening.