Tom’s World — Tom Westfall
“Letter” vs. “spirit”; a lesson learned the hard way
The summer after completing first grade, I learned an incredibly valuable lesson, courtesy of my father. The Monday following the last day of school was the first day of Bible School. Now personally, I’d had enough of structure, rules and “learning” and if memory serves me correctly, my behavior during the tenure of the two weeks in Bible School could best described as “impulsive.”
Although I don’t remember her name, my Bible School teacher “thoughtfully” took it upon herself to come and visit my parents subsequent to the final day and report that I had been disruptive and hard to manage. (Imagine a minister’s kid being anything like that…okay, it’s really not that difficult to imagine.)
Needless to say, my parents were less than impressed with my behavior and in addition to a paddling, I was “grounded” for two weeks and given stern instructions not to play with my friends.
I did well the first week, followed the rule and kept to myself. By then it was nearly the end of June and I had yet to really do much of anything that could be described as fun. I was restless and ready for some action that didn’t involve solitary play.
Midweek near the end of my banishment, a baseball game broke out in the vacant lot next to our house. My friends had come by and asked me to join them, but my mother had said that I was being punished and wasn’t able to play. I watched from the window for a little while, but watching from the window wasn’t sufficient. I walked over to the ball field and sat down, observing the action from somewhere near first base.
An argument broke out over a close call at first, and seeing that I was in the general area, and knowing that I wasn’t likely to have a bias, I was asked what I had seen and would I make the call. I did so and somehow moments later I was the game’s “official” umpire. Mind you, I wasn’t “playing” with my friends; I was participating as a disinterested observer calling balls and strikes and keeping the rabble from arguing every close play.
This went on for half an hour or so until my father happened by. Seeing me behind the plate, he called to me to get home immediately. When I arrived home, rather breathless from the 200-yard sprint, he asked me what I thought I was doing. With great pride I explained that I hadn’t violated the rule — I wasn’t playing the game, I was only officiating. (I probably should have used W.C. Fields’ comment when asked on his death bed why he was reading the Bible; Fields replied, “I’m looking for loopholes,” but at that juncture in my life, I had never heard of him, and besides the glare on my father’s countenance suggested that any attempt at humor might not have been well received.)
I was pretty used to sermons as a child, but what happened next was a sermon unlike any others I had ever heard; this one was a lesson on the difference between “the letter of the law” and the “spirit of the law.” I suspect that my father had recently studied a text in seminary relative to this issue as I was regaled with not only an admonition about my poor choice, but with scriptural references to boot.
One of the problems in society today is that we no longer share a core set of “values” and because of that, we’ve had to create innumerable “rules and regulations” to deal with virtually all happenstances. Once we create a rule, however, someone inevitably is “looking for loopholes” and the “spirit” of the law is ignored in deference to the “technical legality.” For example, many of the banking and finance shenanigans that drove the economic collapse of 2008 weren’t technically “illegal” but they were certainly unethical and immoral.
Just because something isn’t illegal, it doesn’t make it moral or ethical. When pondering a specific behavior, I wonder what would happen if we all started thinking in terms of “how would I like it if someone did this to me?” What would happen if instead of the “legalities” of the “rules and regulations” we looked at the “intent — the spirit” of these laws and then acted accordingly.
Most of us have committed the “golden rule” to memory. Now it’s time to commit it to our lives and our daily practice. In so doing, we teach our children simple values and complex virtues that transcend the plethora of laws that cascade down the waterfall of our struggling society; where laws have replaced ethics and regulations serve as a substitute for a personal conscience.
A court of law might have upheld my “technical” disregard for the spirit of my father’s rule as I really wasn’t “playing” ball with the kids. But subsequent to an additional week of being grounded I did emerge with a deeper appreciation for the spirit of the law; it’s a lesson that has served me well.
Westfall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also is active on Facebook.