Making Rules for Life

For my forty-first birthday, I decided to write a personal rule of life.

Turning forty hadn’t magically made me wise in the way that translates into action, and I didn’t wish to spend the next decade wading in the same bog of issues and habits and disordered affections that kept me from feeling present to my thirties.

I gathered some resources, ranging from the Rule of St. Benedict to works by some of my favorite contemporary spiritual writers like Paula Huston and Henri Nouwen. There are also, of course, the always-relevant Ten Commandments and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. I found various examples of religious and nonreligious personal rules on the Internet, including Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata” (desired things, or things desired), which is not technically a rule but functions beautifully and succinctly as one.

At first glance, a rule might not seem like the best idea for someone who is very good at making herself unhappy with anxious ruminating over whether or not she’s doing her life right. This is why I’ve taken my time—my birthday was back in October, so I definitely haven’t rushed.

Since then, I’ve taken a lot of notes and given much thought to orienting existing spiritual wisdom around the particulars of my life and world, my weaknesses and gifts.

I want to be sure to not make it into legalism and forget the point: to simplify my daily decision-making about how to spend time, energy, money, thoughts, prayers. To know, without having to weigh every available pro and con in any given moment, that no, I generally don’t do that. Yes, I do try to do this.

To know when it’s time for my reading and journaling.
Now I must work, now I need rest.
Call a friend.
Get off Twitter.
Read. Stare into space.
Go to bed.

I realize that sounds an awful lot like what is commonly called a schedule.

But, the intent behind it is much more than that. All of the pieces I’m putting together for my rule are not about managing time. They’re about caring for my body, mind, and soul, and staying close to my shepherd.

What sorts of things have I jotted in my notebook? Here’s one example, and you may laugh, as I cringe, at its banality and my need for a rule around it:

No celebrity gossip. A harmless pastime for some, maybe, to read up on the glamorous or sordid or sad lives of the rich and famous. A guilty pleasure; nothing to get all rule-of-lifey about.

Yet I know when I’m reading a blind item involving, say, which starlet did what sexual favor for this or that studio executive, and I start caring enough to try to figure it out, my soul is diminished. And the time I spend on it necessarily adds to the list of things left undone that would be more life-restoring.

There are other nos for me that aren’t in themselves evil. Craigslist housing postings. Peanut M&Ms. Facebook. Publishing industry news. Amazon reviews of my books. The Sims.

These things can sound so trivial, I know. But consider this part of “How the Monks Are to Sleep” from St. Benedict’s Rule:

Let them sleep clothed and girded with cinctures or cords, that they may be always ready; but let them not have knives at their sides whilst they sleep, lest perchance the sleeping be wounded in their dreams.

Every rule of life is specific, and requires a different kind of detail. Maybe I won’t actually put Peanut M&Ms and Ted Casablanca in my rule, but the abstracts of stability, conversion, and obedience are made concrete and personal when I know my own slippery slopes and areas of caution.

My notes aren’t totally comprised of things from which I hope to abstain. There are even more concerns that I want to say yes to. Neglecting (or refusing) to accept God’s love and provision is truly a bigger part of my problem than browsing a gossip site now and then.

My rule includes embracing friendship, accepting offers of help or hospitality, seeking joy in my vocation, knowing when to stop working and start resting, and allowing myself to say no even to good things when what I deeply need is time to be still.

In my rule is a directive to be in nature at least several times a week. I grew up in an apartment in the city, and though I live in one of the most spectacularly beautiful parts of the country now, it’s easy for me to let too many days go by during which I’m in the house, at the gym, running errands in the car, looking at screens, and otherwise reducing my environment to the manmade.

As soon as I get out onto a canyon trail, or take a walk around our neighborhood with its trees and flowers and birds and pets, I remember: Ah yes, this is Christ’s character—Creator—in whom all things were made and without whom nothing was made. And everything he made is good.

Including me.

The little rules, the big rules, the self-management and self-care and boundaries and structure, the watching out for what goes on in my head, into my mouth, through my eyes…these things are attempts to honor that. God made me—and everyone I encounter and all of creation—for good.

That’s something I need help remembering and acting on. Every day.

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    At age 56 , here’s my list of personal rules for aging gracefully ;

    1) I’m older , no longer a teen/ twenty something … get over it / don’t try to be like them , but keep an open ear for the occasional bit of wisdom that may come from the youth …. but overall … Act your age and not your Shoe Size !
    2) The past is the past . Can’t change or fix it . Some of which is worth carrying into the future , most of which is better left behind
    3) Remind myself of my aging axiom ; ” When you’re 21 you think you’ve all the answers : when in truth you barely know what 20% of the questions are . When you’re in your fifties , Hopefully you now know what 80% of the questions are as well as if you’ve placed Wisdom above Hipdom now knowing what 50% of the answers ( to the questions you understand ) are
    4) Life and the World was never ‘ better ‘ back then ( Proverbs ) There was no ‘ perfect’ time etc . Life has always been difficult and riddled with sin. Its just now you understand and see it all more clearly
    5) You can’t ‘ Fix ‘ everybody/everything . Fact is most times you as a human being can’t ‘ Fix ‘ anything . So take care of that God has given you charge over first and foremost …. and then if you’ve a bit left over take care of those around you
    6) A moment or two of silly/vapid/ ephemeral entertainment – books – music- movies etc is OK and probably a healthy thing . A moment or two . But don’t waste the majority of your time on them . Invest the majority of your time and money on Quality !
    7) Spend time daily in Gods Word … seeking His Truth not justification for Your agendas
    8) For me at least ( though I’d recommend this for all ) Stay as far away from FaceBook Twitter etc etc etc as possible . They Do Not keep you connected . They KEEP you from being connected to those around you ….. who ( read # 5 ) are what really matters
    …..8a; Don’t email someone that is just as easy to call or visit in person unless sending valid information better transmitted via email
    9) Eat quality food the majority of the time . Remembering that a bit of ‘ junk ‘ on occasion probably won’t hurt you
    10) There is Absolutely Nothing you can do to extend the quality or the days of your life ( this is being proven more every day Medically as well as being Biblical BTW ) There’s plenty you can do to shorten them , but zero to create more of them
    11) Those Grey Hairs and Wrinkles etc are a Badge of Courage ! Keep them ! Any Idiot or Fool can do Young . It takes Guts , Courage , Determination and Discipline to do Old Age ( Well ) So save your money and wear those badges of honor with Pride !

    And finally , to end on a humorous note . When Waning Youth is getting you down and you are tempted to try and relive yours … remember this bit of wisdom passed down thru the ages ( OK since 1949 )

    “Old Age and Guile beats Youth and Enthusiasm …… Every Time ! ”

    ( funny thing is that is a paraphrase straight out of Proverbs )

    • http://www.sarazarr.com sara z.

      Good advice! Thanks for sharing it.

  • Susan Houg

    Great ideas, and helpful references to other rule-writers. I need to work through this process myself, as specific to my age/time of life. A simple guideline taught me by a “spiritual director” last year was: is the activity, relationship, encounter, habit, etc. alive-making or dead-making to me. While it’s been hard for me to really pay that much attention to my feelings, just that question is awakening new recognitions.

    • http://www.sarazarr.com sara z.

      alive/dead is a great, simple scale.

  • http://www.joemazza.com Joe Mazza

    This is great. I love the way you talk about the need for flat out rules but rules that honor the spirit of the rule above all. This paragraph really grabbed me:
    “I want to be sure to not make it into legalism and forget the point: to simplify my daily decision-making about how to spend time, energy, money, thoughts, prayers. To know, without having to weigh every available pro and con in any given moment, that no, I generally don’t do that. Yes, I do try to do this.”

    This is something I need to do right now in my life and I need to take time to do it as well! Thanks for provoking thought!

  • http://www.lucishaw.com Luci Shaw

    Sara, I’m in sync with all you said, though at 84 age has simplified how I live. I wish I’d had a rule of life at 40. But no, I was raggedly doing whatever presented itself next, either adolescent waywardness in my kids, deadlines, editing other peoples’ writing, and other distractions I only vaguely remember.

    But being in nature. That has always been a cardinal rule, a visceral hunger in my life for untamed wildness and green. It still is. And I’m grateful to a generous Creator who allows me to live in one of the world’s most luxuriantly green settings, in Washington State, on Puget Sound, with mountains and foothills and meadows and lakes and people who love mountains and foothills and meadows and lakes and treat them kindly. Thanks be to God!


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