The Letter or The Spirit of the Law?

We are creatures of duality. Our brains are split into two halves, one side well-adapted to optimizing the mundane, the other well-suited for adapting to anomalies. (This is not the same tired old and busted “left brain logic, right brain art” nonsense we were all fed in the 80’s and 90’s; this is all-new neuroscience based on FMRI scans of the brain. The short version is that both sides of our brains are fully engaged when we are completely absorbed by a fascinating logic puzzle OR an artistic endeavor. The long version is go read The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist.)

One of the interesting results of having brains optimized for duality is that we see duality everywhere. Order and chaos. Light and dark. Maps and compasses. Another interesting result is that, while we may know that we need both, we almost always favor one side or the other in a specific situation. You might favor a left-brain, order-based, logical approach to a tough negotiation with a business partner and then embrace a right-brain, freedom-based, emotional approach to a tough negotiation with your teenage child an hour later. We’re happiest and most productive when we are able to bring both halves of our duality to bear, but doing this also requires us to put forth maximum effort.

The problem is that both of our halves are optimized to try to reduce that very effort. We simply can’t sprint at maximum speed every time we want to move, so we have adapted coping mechanisms to get by at a more comfortable pace. We even tell ourselves little stories to make ourselves feel better about it when we do. We tell ourselves that our approach is the best. We might even tell ourselves that the other approach is wrong, or stupid. Or maybe even evil. Carl Jung observed that every emotion inside of us has a light side and a dark side, and we call one good and the other evil, but the fact is they are both our servants and integral parts of ourselves, and happiness must elude us until we can see the darker parts of ourselves and embrace them.

I don’t want to veer off into good and evil and light and dark, but keep it in mind the next time you want to immediately label your way as the One True Way™ thus making every other way heretical falsehood. (Here’s a sneak peek inside McGilchrist’s book: the “order” side of our brain literally cannot accept, let alone tolerate, the existence of anything it does not understand. When people have severe injury to one side of their brain, you can instantly tell which side it was just by watching to see if they are aware that they have been injured. The “synthesis” side of our brain immediately and keenly feels the loss of its well-organized and hyperefficient partner. The hyperefficient partner, on the other hand, never looks up from its work to notice that something big has changed in its world.)

What I do want to touch on today is a duality between the Letter of the Law and the Spirit of the Law, and specifically in D/s, between using a written contract versus a guiding set of principles. When I sat down to write this post, I planned to say that Beth and I started out using contracts and then evolved to just using principles, but I quickly realized that this is just a convenient bit of misremembering on my part. I do know that we have had contracts, or at least a contract, once, but they/it have all been very short-lived. Beth and I live in a world where “no battle plan survives initial contact with the enemy”. I am tempted to say that this means that contracts are a bad way to handle the incoming changes of life, but when I look around and see so many people out there living happily and loving their contracts (from light D/s all the way down to hardcore M/s), I am forced to admit that maybe I’m just not very good at writing contracts. Actually, it could be both: perhaps I’m no good at following or enforcing contracts, and as a result I’ve never taken the time to learn the skill of writing good ones.

This last idea seems likely, now that I think about it. Early in my career, I preferred to do all my business on a handshake. It led to great relationships with most of my customers, but I found out the hard way that it only takes about one bad customer in five to bankrupt a business. I learned to write a good contract, to never sign a bad one, and to never start work for a customer until they’d signed a (good) contract. It was a lot of work and I’m still not very good at it, but those three principles have literally saved my career.

But isn’t it interesting that I couldn’t learn to lay down the letter of the law until I learned some general, guiding principles that captured the spirit of the law?

When I look at the people I know are living happily under a D/s contract, I notice that they have the letter of the law spelled out for them, but they also clearly abide happily under the spirit of that law. Maybe for them it is the letter that guides them to the spirit?

If we are all creatures of duality, and we tend to favor one side at any given moment, and we are happiest when both sides are engaged, then… maybe this would a lot of sense. Find things in your side of the duality that will bring you the balance of both sides.

If you favor the principled approach, determine what principles are important, like “Safe, Sane and Consensual”, RACK (“Risk-Aware Consensual Kink”), or the 4 D’s of Domestic Discipline (“No Disobedience, Dishonesty, Disrespect, or Danger”). But then translate the spirit of those principles into the letter of the law by finding specific points to watch out for. SS&C might lead to an agreement to be sexually available to the dominant at any time. RACK might lead to a play session where you spank your submissive to orgasm. The 4 D’s might lead to a “no texting while driving” rule. The principles lead to rules which lead to decisions which result in a desired outcome.

If you favor a more well-defined approach… well, I admit I’m a bit out of my depth here. If this describes you, I’d love to hear your comments. But from a distance, I observe a similar process. Rules lead to decisions which result in an outcome which reveals and supports the desired principles. Or maybe it’s the same exact process? Maybe you start with principles and arrive at an outcome; the only difference is that I wrote down the principles and you wrote down the rules? I’d love to know how it works!

Either way, what I believe is that you need both the spirit and the letter of the law working together. Neither one works by itself.


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