A Bad Case of the Neat Freaks

Lincoln Logs toy by K’Nex

“But you’re doing it ALL WRONG!” I yelled at my younger brother… my face turning red, my eyeballs bulging, and little jets of steam curling out of my nostrils.

The subject was Lincoln Logs. The project was trying to build a fort from which our plastic army men could defend themselves against all hostile attackers. His assignment – which I THOUGHT was simple enough to understand – was to build the eastern wall. You know, the one where the army guys would stand on the walkway and shoot over the top.

But instead of using the LONG pieces with four notches in them, he was using the really short pieces with only TWO notches.

It never occurred to me that I might not have explained the assignment clearly enough to him. As far as I was concerned, he was apparently just being intentionally difficult and annoying – like younger brothers always seem to be.

That scene took place at least sixty years ago. My faulty memory might have blurred some of the details of the event itself, but not its essence. What I mean by that is; the Russell of today bears a shockingly (and depressingly) close resemblance to the Russell of 1962 when it comes to keeping track of and compulsively following The Rules

“Things must be done correctly. Rules must be followed. Crumbs must be swept off the counter, suitcases must be packed properly, and Lincoln Log forts must be built the right way,” he says. 

“Otherwise, there will be chaos, confusion, death, and destruction.” 

You’re doing it ALL WRONG!” is not an uncommon phrase for 11-year-olds. But wouldn’t you think it would have disappeared completely from the conversations of most 70-year-olds?

I am sorry to report that this is not at all the case. At least when the 70-year-old we are talking about is me.

Those who follow this blog closely will notice this is not the first time I have opined on this subject. It even came up earlier this year. For some reason, the topic of compulsive rule-following seems to occupy a lot of my brain space. 

Why is that do you suppose? Is it because I suspect there is something more sinister and pathological lurking there below the surface? Is it because I fear I am infected with a more deadly disease than simply a bad case of the Neat Freaks?

What is really going on – in my instant, skin-deep analysis – is that I am trying to pull some version of The Ol’ Switcheroo… that is, I am spending time and energy endlessly campaigning about the rightness of countless miniscule items like the alignment of forks and drinking glasses in order to avoid frying those much larger and more consequential fish… fish like racial justice, systemic poverty, hopelessness, homelessness, addiction, and cruelty.

I mean, there is right. And then there is RIGHT.

Fork aligning and T-shirt folding I can do. 

Righting the wrongs of systemic racism? Waaaaay out of my league.

Mother Teresa was not one to let folks like me off the hook quite so easily. Rather than letting us wring our hands about the impossibility of single-handedly healing the ills of the world, she challenged each of us to, “Do small things with great love.”

Even though she has been through the formal canonization process and all, Teresa might have plagiarized Jesus just a little bit on this one. During one of his famous sermons on the importance of faith, Jesus told his disciples, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20, NRSV).

Correct napkin-folding, furniture arrangement, driving etiquette, and pet care are not entirely UNIMPORTANT pursuits. “Neatness is as neatness does,” as somebody’s mama (not mine) once said. 

But we should not persuade ourselves that getting these things right exempts us from our Christian call to make sure we get that OTHER stuff right, too.

Abundant blessings;

3 Responses to “A Bad Case of the Neat Freaks”

  1. February 23, 2022 at 9:07 pm

    Russell, I always admire how you merge memories into meaningful lessons for us all! And there’s always a giggle included in the wisdom! I loved Lincoln Logs, by the way. Yes, I like to stay tidy and know the little things seem to be looking good and right. And the only way to touch the big things that matter is letting go of the expectations I have, letting God take over reading the directions, and just love in the small and big ways. You’re doing it right, Russell! 🙏🏻🙏🏻🤗

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