Rules of Love

Review of “The Common Rule” by Justin Whitmel Earley

Justin Whitmel Earley. The Common Rule: Habits of a Purpose for an Age of Distraction. IVP Books, 199 pages, $18.00.

The Common Rule is the kind of book that, if its prescription is taken seriously, can probably save lives. I mean that literally. A passing awareness of the news is enough to know about the surge in depression, anxiety, and suicide among millennials, particularly professional, college-educated ones. Without any sweeping claims or controversial analysis, The Common Rule meekly presents a powerful, life-saving antidote to a restless culture that’s choking on minutia and starving for meaning. One’s only quibble would be that this is more a potent dose than a full supply.

Near the beginning of his book, Justin Earley recounts the story of a severe nervous breakdown. While an ambitious career was beginning in law school, Earley intentionally structured his life around being as available, as “connected,” and as active as possible. Convictionally, he was a Christian who believed in the worship of Jesus, but habitually, he became a worshiper of doing. “I now see that my body had finally become converted to the anxiety and busyness I’d worshiped through my habits and routine. All the years of a schedule built on going nonstop to try to earn my place in the world had finally rubbed off on my heart.” This insight is crucial to the logic of The Common Rule: We are being formed not only in the image of what we believe but what we practice. Our habits don’t just reveal our beliefs, they shape them. A more theologically profound book on this topic is James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love, but where Smith is most concerned about changing our understanding of and attitude toward habit, Earley offers an impressively thorough, and helpfully actionable, set of practices.

The “common rule” that the title refers to is a set of four daily habits and four weekly habits. Together, the eight habits form a concise, systematic rule of life for maintaining spiritual, relational, moral, and physical health. The greatest strength of the Common Rule, its specificity, is also its greatest weakness. Many of the practices of the Common Rule depend on a certain middle-class, information-economy lifestyle that many but not all Christians share. For example, the weekly rule “Curate media to four hours” is perhaps too rife with an American, upwardly mobile subtext to really mean something to especially poor or especially non-Western believers. Similarly, much of the book’s effectiveness will depend on how much readers feel distracted by digital devices or burnt out by an oppressive daily rhythm.

But of course, many American Christians do feel that way, and for them too many books about intellectual health in an omni-connected era are little more than data points mixed with self-evident truisms. Even the good books tend to try too hard to be “revolutionary” and end up offering a binary choice between technology and flourishing. A helpful, recently released general market book on this topic, Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, is persuasive and insightful, but several of Newport’s recommended practices are extreme and likely unfeasible for the very readers who most need their benefits.

Earley’s approach is far more about creating habits than erasing them. For example, Earley rightly extols interpersonal relationship in pushing back against the disembodied communication of the internet. The Common Rule thus commends one daily meal with others and one weekly, hour-long conversation with a friend. These may sound like minor, even trivial, guidelines. But that’s exactly the point. Ours is a technological time in which even the most trivial human interactions are being annihilated. Just as how we never stop needing basic theology and spiritual disciplines, we never stop needing just an hour’s worth of conversation with a being who can look us in the eye, not in the avatar. In refusing to make The Common Rule a revolutionary manifesto, Earley has made it into something more personal, more practical, and more helpful.

Earley understands that the “distraction” at the heart of 21st century life is actually a deep confusion about what a person is. An exclusive diet of digital relationships and trivial mass media frustrates and grieves us because human beings are image-bearers created for glory, not efficiency machines. The first practice of The Common Rule is a kneeling prayer three times per day, a habit that physically reminds us of the dust from where we come and of the Creator to whom we must speak and from whom we must hear. Earley’s chapter on prayer convicted me deeply of my own indifference toward the presence and word of God throughout my day. Something is going to frame my morning, afternoon, and evening. If that is not time with the Lord, what will it be?

My only critique is the somewhat low-shelf theological reflection. There are some really good sections about identity formation and beholding the world (“We become what or who we reflect…We can’t become ourselves by ourselves. The way we discover ourselves is by staring at someone else.”), but the book’s heavily practical focus leaves some important issues unsolved. I would have loved to see a chapter that weaved the 8 Common Rule practices into a thread of worship. Habits always coexist beside loves, and the Christian life defines flourishing in terms of worshiping the One who is worthy of worship, and patterning our lives worshipfully. One hopes for a future expansion of The Common Rule along these lines.

For a long time I believed that spontaneity was a synonym for happiness. As I’ve gotten a little bit older, I’m come to realize the truth at the heart of The Common Rule: My heart needs people, places, and practices that sink deeply into the ground of my life and stay there. For desperate believers who are tired of spiritual lingo peppering life that’s really devoted to becoming more like a machine, The Common Rule offers a badly needed alternative. Here’s hoping this conversation continues and does not stop anytime soon.

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A Social Media Exodus Is Coming

This can’t go on indefinitely. People are getting fed up.

For a while I’ve been coming around to the belief that there will be a massive exodus from existing social media platforms in the next 5-10 years. Stories like this one are why. They’re almost not even newsworthy anymore because they’re so common: Person A is discovered by a group of users to believe Idea X, which immediately triggers demands for Person A either to be “canceled” (i.e, be shamed and protested until their presence on this particular social media channel is no longer emotionally or financially advisable) or forced to recant Idea X.

Nathan Pyle’s case is a particularly egregious example of how social media mobs are willing to go through enormous hoops in order to find something to cancel you over. Look at the sheer amount of investigation and fact-finding this kind of shaming campaign requires:

[I]t was discovered that Nathan Pyle, a popular cartoonist whose ‘Strange Planet’ illustrations are all over Instagram, had espoused support for the anti-abortion March for Life two years ago. Pyle, more specifically, had tweeted support for a woman he identified as his girlfriend and who had posted a Facebook message about her own support for the March for Life. But scroll through the fresh replies to that tweet and you’ll encounter erstwhile Pyle fans acting like they were personally wronged and are owed an apology.

This afternoon Pyle posted a brief statement on his Twitter that reads disturbingly like an ideological tax, a price of social media citizenship:

The reason why this omnipresent, increasingly vicious trend bodes ill for the future of places like Twitter and Facebook is that the infrastructure of social media makes a proper response almost impossible. Let’s say you object to the way Pyle was treated but you are also pro-choice. Your options are to i) Voice support for Pyle, and then risk your bona fides (knowing your own social media history can and will probably be mined for Cancellation ammo), or ii) Say nothing at all, refusing to contribute to the pile on but not risking poking the hive, and just go along your day on Twitter hoping you never have the bad luck to be friends with anyone with the wrong views. That’s it; those are your only two options. The only alternative is to say, “Online culture is ephemeral and unreal, and I reject it,” and then leave.

The reason  people who reject the moral dilemma above still stay on social media is, well, where else are we gonna go? How else are we going to know What Everyone’s Saying?

But this can’t go on indefinitely. People are getting fed up. They’re scared of waking up one morning or getting off a plane and discovering their life has been eviscerated. They’re exhausted by the mental and emotional attention that online minutia demands. They’re annoyed with how the most insignificant trends and conversations have become important sorters to separate good people from bad people. Eventually all this anxiety and weariness and frustration is going to overcome a handful of influential people, and the house of cards is going to fold, slowly but surely. Social media is structured around needing to know what other people are saying. If those “other people” call it quits—as they did with blogging, as they did with Myspace, as they’re doing with “live video” and a hundred other innovations we couldn’t live without two minutes before we completely abandoned them—it’ll all be over.

Of course, this all presumes that people like me have consciousness of our mental and spiritual health, and a willpower to do what’s best for both. I guess the trick in the end is that every time I get close to realizing how tired and anxious I am, I just hit “refresh” and check those notifications, even with one eye closed.

Get On My Lawn

The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness.

In chapter five of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport recites a familiar but enlightening distinction. Drawing from Sherry Turkle, Newport pits Connection against Conversation. Connection is digital interaction; it’s a category of social experience that is low-grade, easy, fast, and mostly impersonal (e.g., it avoids things like facial expressions and vocal cues). Conversation is human-with-human time, an exchange of physical identities and characteristics in the course of talking. A conversation is what you have when a friend drops by for a visit, and connection is what you have when you Like or comment on that friend’s photo. Newport’s essential argument throughout Digital Minimalism is that, for the modern tech user, balancing these experiences is almost impossible, because each one requires time, and time spent on one is time taken away from the other.

I’ll have more to say about the book in the weeks ahead. But I was intrigued by the intense contrast Newport draws between connection and conversation, and the way this contrast reveals how important place is to his entire digital minimalist project. There’s no separating conversation from place, because conversation depends on the people near you, in this moment, wherever you are physically. There is no such thing as place-less conversation, and there’s no such thing as local digital connection, because the digital medium necessarily dislocates users.

If you know a little something about the history of Facebook, this point is very important. Facebook was originally structured to be a platform within specific places, called Networks. In the early days of Facebook Networks were everything; you couldn’t even join the site unless you applied for membership in a Network. The original Networks were colleges, then cities. When I joined Facebook in the summer of 2007, the site required me to indicate I was in Louisville, Kentucky’s network. In addition to curating a list of “People You May Know” from mutual networks, the network requirement—at least in its own way—tethered the experience of Facebook to place. It gave place something of an honorary role as gatekeeper for social experience. Nominally, you could not experience Facebook without belonging to a particular place.

Facebook dropped the Network requirement shortly after I registered my account. Without the Network requirement, anyone could join Facebook, and Facebook was now its own “community” instead of a digital tool for experiencing your community. The point of Facebook became one’s relationship to the site, not one’s relationship to specific people in particular places. Almost every major ill that Facebook has spilled into the public square is downstream of this change. The loss of Networks was representative of the transformation of Facebook from a site that facilitated social interaction to a one that encouraged isolation, advertising, and artificial relationships. The truest, most natural experience of Facebook now is not achieved out in the offline world, meeting friends whom you can “connect” with later. The authentic Facebook experience now is being constantly logged in, attending to one’s own digital ID and trying to master Facebook’s ever-shifting algorithms that create the impression of “good content.” We are left with connection for connection’s sake, which is to say, we are left with a platform instead of a network.

By “overcoming” place, Facebook thrust users into nowhere. The same ways that place constricts our relational bandwidth are the ways in which it richly rewards it. You cannot have the humane joys of place without also experiencing its power to locate you here instead of there, with these people rather than those people. The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness: ephemeral “connection” that demands addiction to self-consciousness in exchange for minute sensations of digital belonging.