The Unwritten Rule
What bowling taught me about the impact of showing courtesy

I am not very good at bowling.

No, really. I’m terrible at bowling.

I’m probably one of the most inconsistent bowlers you’ve ever seen. Most of the time, I throw gutter balls or hit three or four pins, with perhaps the occasional spare. Once in a while, I get a beautiful strike completely by accident—and then am utterly unable to repeat the feat. But even though I lack the skill, I still really enjoy bowling. It’s always a fun experience, and it helps me to learn to laugh at myself. But the last time I went bowling, the experience taught me something else—something I wasn’t expecting.

It was a warm Saturday evening in February, and my Sabbath date invited me to go bowling with him and another guy and girl. When we arrived at the bowling alley, the car park was almost full, and we wondered if there would even be a lane open for us. The line was almost out the doors, but there were enough empty bowling lanes that we decided to stay and hope for the best.

After paying, we got our shoes; I had to try three times to get a size that would fit me. (It was just like Goldilocks; the first pair was way too big, the second pair was way too small, and the third pair was just right.) After that ordeal, we headed to the rack of bowling balls and each grabbed the ball we wanted to use.

Our lane was really close to another lane, which was being used by an older couple probably in their 60s and a younger couple probably in their late 30s or mid-40s. They were finishing a game when we walked up, and then the older man and woman started another game between the two of them. They were clearly serious bowlers; they sported professional-looking gloves and game faces that were pretty intimidating. The older man was particularly skilled. He kept throwing these amazing hook shots that knocked out all the pins in one go. Clearly we were in the presence of a master. His wife was somewhat less skilled, but still far better than me—not that that is hard to do.

Shockingly, I was doing rather well at the start of this game. I knew my technique was completely wrong, but thankfully these bowling giants didn’t seem to mind that we lowly unskilled bowlers were using the lane next to them. We went our merry way, wreaking havoc among the bowling pins and having a wonderful time. The four of us were a pretty jolly group of good friends, so there were a lot of laughs.

About a quarter of the way into our game, one of my friends grabbed his bowling ball and stepped toward the lane, about to attempt an epic shot. None of us noticed that the older man in the lane next to us had just finished his pre-throw ritual and was about to release his own bowling ball directly into the path of the unsuspecting pins.

Then the lighthearted hilarity of our evening was shattered in an instant by a gruff shout.


This was followed by something that was mostly unintelligible. I think it was something along the lines of “Wait your turn!”, but I don’t think those were his exact words. Whatever he had said, he was clearly angry, and we were all bewildered as to what we had done to offend him. I was taken aback; I had been having a conversation with one of my friends, and then this older man just started shouting at us for no apparent reason.

Skewering us with a furious glare as we stood frozen in place, mouths open, he went back to his bowling and released a killer of a shot that knocked out every single pin.

We were still all pretty confused as to what we had done to anger this man, when the woman from the younger couple came up to us and explained. Unbeknownst to us, it is bowling etiquette to wait until the bowler in the lane next to you has finished his throw before you begin yours—so that you don’t throw off his shot. I suppose this would have been logical if we had been thinking about it, but we had no idea that this unwritten rule existed. We apologized profusely, telling her that we had trespassed in ignorance, and that we would certainly not do it again.

Peace was restored as quickly as it had been shattered. We made doubly sure that we never threw off this older man’s game; every time he picked up his bowling ball, we didn’t dare step onto the platform until he was finished. Other than these periodic moments of stagnation, our game continued without incident. My score fell further and further behind everyone else’s—as usually happens—but we were all having a lot of fun.

The younger couple was about ten feet behind us, whispering to each other for the rest of the game. We tried to ignore them and focused on just having fun. Our corner of the bowling alley was again filled with smiles and laughter as we committed all sorts of bowling blunders.

At first, the older man still seemed angry. But the longer we played, and the more we consciously tried to not disturb him when it was his turn—not out of anger, but simply out of courtesy for his request—the less upset he became. His cloud of anger seemed to evaporate.

The older couple finished their game—he had a score about three times the score that I ended up with—and started to pack up their belongings. Then, for the second time that evening, the four of us were utterly shocked by what happened next.

The older man walked up to us and put his hand on the shoulder of my friend.

“I just want to apologize for what happened earlier,” he said. “That was inexcusable.” He said that sometimes he would just get so caught up in the game that if something disturbed him, he would lash out and then regret it later. He apologized in a very heartfelt way, told us with a smile to have a good night, and then walked away with his wife and the younger couple.

Later on that evening, I was thinking about this small instance, and I realized something. If the four of us had become angry at the man for shouting at us—if we had talked back to him—he probably wouldn’t have apologized. He probably would have felt justified for yelling at us, because we would have seemed like any other disrespectful college students from some local university. But we didn’t let it foul our attitudes. We received the admonition, changed our behavior, and kept smiling. I think that was the biggest thing that surprised this man; we actually listened to his grievance and respected it, and we didn’t get angry about it.

In the Church, the youth are used to paying respect to their elders. But it was more than that. This man clearly saw a difference between us and the other punk kids who were bowling in the lanes around us. We had simply gone out to have some fun, but we were unwittingly shining our lights in the process (Matthew 5:16).

This little incident taught me how a little common courtesy and a happy mindset can affect someone who knows absolutely nothing about the way of life we lead. Showing courtesy to others is one way in which we should stand out from our peers. We are setting this example—in the way we act, speak, dress, treat strangers, and deal with setbacks and difficulties. You are shining a light for God. How bright is your light?