Livin’ la vida dogma

October 4, 2007

Here’s a fascinating Newsweek piece about a man who spent a year following every rule in the Bible. By his own Biblical study and in consultation with leaders from a broad spectrum of religions, he amassed a list of over 700 provisions and prohibitions and tried his darndest to live according to them. He never worked on the Sabbath. He always wore garments of white (and of a single cloth, of course). He refused to cut his hair and grew a full, bushy beard. He even lived in a self-constructed hut in his apartment.

A bearded fella walking around Manhattan in white robes is bound to attract some attention. Recalling one encounter with an unfaithful old man:

I was in the park, dressed in my white garb, and this man in his 70s came over and asked what I was doing. I explained I was trying to follow every rule in the Bible as literally as possible, including growing my beard, not mixing fibers, stoning adulterers, and he said, “I’m an adulterer, are you going to stone me?” I said, “Yeah that would be great.” The Bible doesn’t say what size the stones have to be, so I had been carrying around these pebbles in my pocket for just such an occasion. I took the pebbles out of my pocket, and he instantly picked one up and threw it at me, so I decided, an eye for an eye, and I tossed one at him.

Not that he lived through the year wholly without sin. Commandments against cursing and coveting proved, not surprisingly, more difficult to follow. He also went through some tough times with his wife, who was none too keen on the idea of following the “obey your man” rules.

Among the things he took from the experience was the paradox that living a regimented life can, in some sense, be liberating:

Religion provides structure, mooring, anchoring . . . After my year I felt unmoored, overwhelmed by choice. I have adjusted, but I’m still overwhelmed by choice, as we all are in America.

Our American value system prizes having choices above almost all else. But what if the presence of more choices leaves us more inclined to make bad ones? Take the classic Office Space conundrum – what would you do with a million dollars? Or a billion dollars? Would you sit on your ass all day and do nothing, since you’d never have to work for shelter, sustenance, or entertainment? For many, there’s a pretty strong temptation toward entropy – being as lazy as possible, even if they end up less happy as a result.

Living by a certain structure contributes to a sense of internal order and serenity, while living with no structure can zap the energy right from you. Here’s an essay offering a case study of a town that suddenly stopped working. Far from spending more time on leisure and fun, the townspeople stopped caring about much of anything once no longer had to show up for work.

I can relate. The times I’ve felt best are those in which I’m working steadily but with a sense of purpose and some time with which I can enjoy myself. Work hard, play hard… all that jazz. Momentum in my work life provides the energy for fun in the rest of my life. It also makes me feel good about myself as a human being, like my contributions and efforts make me worth something. Sure, I have moments where the craving for lazy downtime is almost overwhelming, but whenever I’ve actually taken that downtime (e.g. winter breaks during college), I end up feeling more sullen, less focused… less able to enjoy life, really. Having at least some external structures out there putting pressure on you, be it pressure to work or to act a certain way, can be healthy so long as those pressures help steer you in the direction in which you ultimately want to go.

The lesson here: being a man with a plan isn’t a bad way to be. Neither is wearing white robes all the time… unless it’s after Labor Day. Then trendy Manhattanites might have a bone to pick with you.

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