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 eight months ago, 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.
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.
This post originally appeared at Good Letters on June 3, 2012 with the title “Making Rules for Life.”
Former Good Letters contributor Sara Zarr is the author of six novels for young adults, most recently Gem & Dixie. A National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner, her books have been named to annual best books lists of the American Library Association, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, the Guardian, the International Reading Association, the New York Public Library, and Log Angeles Public Library.