I was first asked to write a Personal Rule of Life in seminary. I researched various instructions on how to write a Personal Rule, I looked up examples. I struggled with the assignment. None of the formats I had seen seemed to fit what I needed, and I was determined that my Rule wouldn’t be a spiritual to-do list.
The Temptation of Achievement
I’m achievement-oriented as a symptom of my deepest brokenness. Some brokenness is manifested in substance abuse, in anger, or in sloth; mine is manifested in achievement. This has the added difficulty in that it’s seen as virtuous; achievement is heavily rewarded in our culture. But I can tell it’s feeding something poisonous living inside me.
Running parallel to my understanding that my achievement is unhealthy in some ways is the knowledge that the achievement doesn’t have a destination; it’s a road without end and no rest stops. No amount of achievement will ever satisfy the emptiness that is at the core of me that keeps trying to be filled. David Foster Wallace put it this way:
“The face I’d put on the terror is the dawning realization that nothing’s enough, you know? That no pleasure is enough, that no achievement is enough. That there’s a kind of queer dissatisfaction or emptiness at the core of the self that is unassuageable by outside stuff.”
Achievement a temptation particularly heightened in our time in which there is so much we’re told we must achieve. Any single issue of any magazine may contain workouts for a perfect body, 9 foods to eat daily for a variety of vitamins (but beware they don’t push you over a strict calorie limit), advice on being the most attentive friend and lover, 5 steps to the perfect smoky eye, a list of activity suggestions to be the best parent ever, and 3 ways to get ahead at work. The cultural pressure to achieve in the realms of health, beauty, relationships, and career is staggering, if not crushing.
Too often, church is a place that piles on one more area of achievement: the spiritual. It’s yet another list of to-do’s in a world that is burdening us with perfection. We’re told to pray constantly, read scripture and devotions daily, attend church weekly, volunteer monthly, fill out the pledge card annually. Too often, the Church fails to be a sanctuary from the world and becomes another perpetuator of our world’s deepest brokenness.
Grace Frees from Achievement
My struggle with developing a Rule of Life finally came to this: I can’t imagine God wanting me to achieve even more as a way to draw closer to God.
So I threw out the formats of daily prayers and weekly rhythms. What I needed was a way to keep me from sacrificing myself on the Altar of High Achievement. I kept format is loose. Rather than prayers and habits to be done daily or weekly, it’s a way to go through life, a way to be shaped into a person of agency unto goodness, a way to learn to speak to myself as I would a loved child. I read it regularly so that its wisdom gathered from many mentors can become a voice in my self in daily interactions.
I share it with hope that it aids and frees others to have a loosened rule of life, to abandon legalism in favor of grace, to shift a body’s orientation away from achievement and towards communion.
My Loosened Rule of Life
Ways of Being & Relating
- Have a voice.
- Use your voice for others and yourself; the strength that is in you can be for you.
- It is not sufficient to be a self that only exists in relation to others.
- Know yourself, and know that the self you know is not the entirety of your self. Know that the self others narrate to you is not the entirety of your self.
- Follow your joy. Follow your own calling, not others’ callings for you.
- Commit to living out the image of God that is within you, to allowing identity to overflow into agency.
- You are valuable. Don’t stay where you are not valued. Go to where you are valued.
- Note: This piece stems from a time in seminary when my words had become primarily for the good of others and I took a year of silence in class in order to learn that the power of my voice can be for myself.
- Have courage.
- The courage to say no, the courage to say yes. Remember that saying yes “to will the one thing” means saying no to lots of other things.
- Remember that we all suffer. Keep going.
- Lean into the pain, find what it has to teach you.
- When you despair, lament until you find hope.
- Believe in and seek out the holy contour of life.
- Think and speak in categories other than good/bad, or find ways to define those terms.
- Note: As someone who knows narrative and is intuitive, I often suspect where a trajectory will take me before I get there. I must remind myself that all good stories require conflict and that the work that must be accomplished requires leaning into the pain of my story. It’s in the moments that I want to stop that I must find courage to keep going into the discomfort and hurt.
- Be vulnerable.
- Risk emotionally.
- Laugh, loudly.
- Cry, openly and without shame.
- Allow events and moments to impact and change you.
- Pursue relationships and form communities that might not work out.
- Show hospitality that will likely never be returned.
- Be interested in growth, knowing that stretching muscles can be tender.
- Ask basic, stupid questions, and find unexpected answers.
- Ask complex, interesting questions, and delve into research for the most satisfying answers.
- Note: Relationships are vital. My life is not only about my work but about being with others. Intimacy requires some level of risk. I know I can be dismissive when I feel hurt, especially with my family. This reminds me to stay engaged.
- Live with simplicity.
- Look for more livable ways to define and live the good life.
- Know kinship with creation. Garden. What you do to the earth, you do to yourself.
- Don’t be cool.
- You don’t need more clothes, items, social media presence, or anything else trying to sell a false version of the good life. Consume less.
- Live into rhythms of work and rest, each day, week, year.
- Keep a daily routine… but don’t be rigid. Stay up late when ideas are happening. Get out of bed when they wake you up. And keep human! See people, go places.
- Spend less. Or spend more for items of good quality, ethically sold, at rare intervals.
- Note: I’m concerned about the consumer-driven narrative of today’s culture; there are other ways to live that have been livable and well lived for centuries and centuries.
- Be grounded in physicality; know your embodiment.
- Sweat often. Sweat is your prayer.
- Walk. Run. Practice yoga. Practice krav maga.
- Breathe deeply and mindfully. Breath is your prayer, too.
- Drink lots of water and tea. Eat colorful plants that died just recently.
- Do the things that call you to mindful embodiment: hike, sail, garden, play violin, craft, sing.
- Note: I tell people with complete sincerity that I became a Christian through a secular yoga practice. Yet as an pretty typical ENTJ, I know that I tend to neglect the physical, even knowing that engaging my body is the very thing that can restore me in times of stress.
Creation / Re-Creation / Recreation
- Value the increments and explosions of re/creation.
- Practice writing daily pages. Remember. Carry a notebook and pen. Write things down. Revisit journals.
- Listen attentively and carefully.
- Take field trips and artist dates.
- Practice the gentle art of domesticity so long as it feels gentle. Cultivate home.
- Say yes to preaching, teaching, speaking, and writing opportunities, even (especially) if they feel slightly beyond my qualifications.
- Fail. Fail again. Fail better. Fail faster.
- Collaborate. Everyone has something to offer.
- There is nothing new under the sun; keep a swipe file.
- You are powerful enough to create: apply words in a new way and make symbols relevant to a new day.
- Note: I (hesitatingly) believe that writing is a task I am meant to be working at. At the same time, there is something rewarding and necessary about creating tangible items, whether a knit washcloth or a watercolor daffodil.