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Rachel Wada/The Globe and Mail

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

The presence of a rule always means that a relationship has failed. This point became clear to me on an evening out with my young family. We had been invited to another family’s home for the evening. I remember getting up from the table to check on our kids who were playing fabulously well, only to discover that someone had taken a plump blue ink pad and a set of rubber stamps, and stamped the hallway walls.

A short investigation led to the culprit. Our daughter’s defence was that we had never once said not to stamp the wall with blue ink. This was true: I had never once told her she shouldn’t take stamps, a plump blue ink pad and stamp the wall.

My argument was that she should “know better.” Meaning, our relationship, while not explicit on the subject of stamping walls, should have been enough to prevent this creative outburst. However, now our family has an explicit rule: “Thou shalt not stamp thy neighbours’ walls.” When our relationship failed, a rule was born.

The argument with my daughter was really about two possible approaches to behaviour: rules or relationship. Her argument invoked a register of rules: There wasn’t a rule about how she should treat neighbours’ walls, viz-a-viz stamping. How could she be responsible?

I argued for the opposite approach: relationship. This approach promotes one principle: We care for these neighbours. All our actions must meet the spirit of this idea. Of course, there’s a thousand legal holes in an approach such as this. It’s not the sort of thing that could withstand a court challenge.

But it works. One principle says all that needs to be said. We can rest easy. I need not wonder if it would be okay if I threw dinner plates at their aged cat. But of the two approaches, relationship trumps rules. It’s lighter and far more human.

Ever witness a relationship, such as a marriage, fall apart? The relationship dissolves into a bog of rules. The simple power of relationship falls apart. The litany of rules begins. One rule is never enough. Where there’s one, more are on the way.

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Rules, like mosquitoes in a hot swamp, breed. It starts with one rule, then someone asks a simple question, the wording of the rule breaks down and behold the rule has two sub clauses and a precis, with a set of guidelines. Blink again, and the rule and guidelines have become a mandatory form with an accompanying rule book. Once more, and it's all a government program, with inspectors policing the rules.

Case in point: taxes. In 1917, Canadians began taxing citizens. The original Income Tax Act began as a 10-page document. Today, 102 years later, the Income Tax Act is a monstrous tome: 3,227 pages.

If I care for my country, I exhibit citizenship. This is a condition in which rules don’t need to be stated and people are motivated to do what they do because they attend to where they live. So, I might spy a paper cup on the sidewalk and pick it up because I feel responsible for the country and city I live in.

However, when my connection to my country is run by a muck of rules, then my outlook can transform. I’m invited to look for loopholes and outs, soft spots where rules have not been properly worked out or places where “no one is looking.” And the paper cup stays on the sidewalk, because “it’s not my job.” In fact, I might add my own cup to the sidewalk, if I can get away with it.

As I gaze at this year’s mound of paperwork, and review last year’s heap of correspondence, what is between us? A mammoth mire of rules that they have installed to guide my association with them. There is no meaningful relationship between the government and me. They don't trust me. I don’t trust them. So, I learn the rules, and speak through forms and figures. They reply with reviews and audits.

We got in trouble last year for reporting income on the wrong line. No cost implications, just a series of exchanges, with a sour soul who needed, for some reason, to point out the error. We were audited for our charity donations, again, no cost implications, the fourth or fifth time in the past 10 years.

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Relationships devolve into rules, but rules can evolve into relationship. When I began writing seriously, the volume of rules about how one ought to write overwhelmed me. I worked with a grammar guide open on my desk.

I don’t consult the rule books any longer, or at least very rarely. The rules I know have been so worked into me that they are now part of my relationship with writing and I rarely think of them anymore.

Rules are the excrement left behind when relationship fails. Since they are created after something happens, they face the wrong way, gazing at the past. Relationship looks forward, anticipates new situations and makes a person free and ready to act as they should, regardless of what may be coming.

Citizenship, when you care for your country and where rules don’t need to be stated, is our best choice. It’s the only path that leads to life. Because a city, a nation, a world without citizens will never survive.

Bill Bunn lives in Millarville, Alta.

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