The Common Rule

Sometimes, as David Foster Wallace described in his famous speech This is Water, we don’t know what to call the environment we’re swimming in. What would happen if we named the cultural milieu “anxiety?” What if we realized that our souls are drowning in toxicity because we’re unable to accept our own limitations? We think that if we don’t answer that text message right away, if we don’t know what just popped up on Instagram, if we don’t fix someone’s problem fast enough, our lives will become meaningless.

Thus is the premise of the talk Justin Whitmel Early gave last night on The Common Rule, a pattern of communal habits designed to help 21st century people create a more supportive “architecture of life.” Our chasing of peripheral goals alienates us from each other and God. He suggests that if we adopt habits such as turning our cell phones off for at least one hour a day, eating at least one meal a day with others, or watching no more than four hours of TV/movies per week, we may find breathing room for our souls. We will likely find that we love God and our neighbors more.

I like Early’s work. Three years ago, I lived in a restored convent in Italy where I was encouraged to adopt practices that helped me be present. I ate all my meals with other people. I only had internet access for one hour a day. Many of my homework assignments involved walking around town to make site-specific art or do on-site research. Those experiences helped me reevaluate my priorities and reshape my life.

Some of the conditions of my present life allow me to continue forming rich relationships and stay healthy, but some don’t. I live in a rather convent-like community where I eat with others often. We pray together every weekday morning. We hardly ever turn the TV on in our apartment. But, at the same time, addictions creep in. I work on the computer a lot, and the notification bell never seems to stop ringing. Sometimes my work teams communicate through Facebook messenger, and I can’t separate those from personal messages. I work a side job to help pay the bills, and time for margin is limited.

As my internship ends this Friday and I am given greater flexibility to determine my schedule, Early’s talk reminds me to make time for things that matter. Having meals with other people, walking, praying, painting, dancing–these are habits that keep my soul alive and make the vortex of chaos less appealing. I want to be baptized in goodness, not in anxiety.


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