The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for An Age of Distraction
An extended version of this review is now available on The Gospel Coalition: Canada
I’ve been building the habits and enacting the practices of The Common Rule for almost a year and now there’s a book to point people to, which is great, because it’s easier than explaining the idea over and over again. The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction by Justin Whitmel Earley is a book about habits, yes, but at bottom it’s a book about learning to live a life that’s loving and life-giving.
Humans are limited. We are not omniscient or omnipresent and trying to live as if this were untrue crushes people. By holding to a misleading doctrine of unlimited freedom “we get so decision-fatigued that we’re unable to choose anything well […] we’re extremely susceptible to letter other people—from manipulative bosses to invisible smartphone programmers—make our decisions for us.” The pursuit of unlimited freedom devolves into a kind of slavery.
The Common Rule is an old monastic “Rule of Life” updated for the smart-device age. Saints Augustine and Benedict “saw habits as the gears by which to direct life toward the purpose of love.” Whitmel Earley explains how the latin word for rule here refers to a trellis in a garden; it gives order to growth, preventing the natural tendency of a vine (and people) to twist and decay. The Common Rule seeks to “pattern communal life in the direction of purpose and love instead of chaos and decay.”
Ok, love and purpose over chaos and decay, that sounds great. How does it work, though?
A collection of daily and weekly habits on four different axes are meant to provide a trellis for loving God and neighbour. The idea is to embrace good things (rest, friendship, etc.) and resist bad things (distraction, ingratitude) through the cultivation of habits.
The final habit is the habit of failure, and becoming comfortable with it. I needed this final reminder from the epilogue:
… Failure is not the enemy of formation; it is the liturgy of formation. How we deal with failure says volumes about who we > really> believe we are. Who we really believe God is. When we trip on failure, do we fall into ourselves? Or do we fall into grace?
I don’t think I would have continued investing in habits of love and purpose after my experiment with it for Lent in 2018. Why? Because I failed so spectacularly at keeping the habits. But I failed forward, recognizing the good things growing out of my shoddy practice. I held fast to the habits that came more easily and adjusted some that proved more difficult for me to keep. I built a rule for my life while remaining true to the purpose of any Rule of Life: the love of God and neighbour.
I still fail, almost on a weekly basis, but now failure is the exception that proves the rule. The background of my life has been redefined by reflection and contemplation instead of anxiety and distraction. Ordering life around a liturgy of love and purpose guards against counter-formation by the invisible liturgies of consumerism, intellectualism and individualism.
Most helpful to me has been the practice of daily prayer, assisted by a prayer book and curating my screen entertainment to 4 hours per week. Limiting my passive “screen time” forces me to think about what else I could be doing (besides rewatching a second episode of Parks and Recreation) and has helped redirect my habits distraction back towards my work.
I’ve never been more aware of my weaknesses than when freelancing and working from home.
The book contains helpful diagrams like the one above, breakdowns of and possible implementations of each habit, and useful resources at the end of the book. It’s clear and well-organized and, perhaps most helpfully, expounds the value of each practice.
After a short introduction on the idea of cultivating freedom through limitation, the chapters explore how each of the daily and weekly habits helps us embrace and resist our inclinations, for the love of God and neighbour.
As an early adopter of The Common Rule’s framework, I can heartily recommend the practice of a rule of life, and this book, as a corrective against our age of anxiety and distraction.