What's Tony Thinking

A Few Good “Rules” for Life


As readers of this blog know, I am a fan of the philosopher Alain de Botton. De Botton (pronounced dee-bow-tain) has focused his work on making philosophical insight accessible and useful for ordinary people. What a concept.

He has created an on-line “School of Life,” which is a repository of short videos on all sorts of topics and life conundrums. Daunted by the out-put of the “School of Life,” de Botton recently condensed his main points into something called “The Eight Rules of Life.”

I’m not going to go over all eight. You can watch the video. I encourage you to do so. But I do want to comment on the first two “rules.” They are, “Accept Imperfection,” and “Friendship.”

What intrigues me about these first two is how, to my mind, they parallel the basics of the Christian faith.

Under “Accept Imperfection,” de Botton says, “We are all inherently flawed and broken beings, perfection is beyond us . . . no one is ‘normal,’ and the only people we think of as normal are people we haven’t really gotten to know.”

The Christian version of this is the hoary doctrine of “original sin,” and its claim that all — not some — of us are sinners, that is flawed and broken beings.  I think I have previously quoted Pascal’s delightful riff on this: “The world does not divide between saints and sinners; but between sinners who believe themselves to be saints, and saints who know themselves to be sinners.”

True, the language of “sin,” and even more so “original sin” tends to be heavily freighted and to conjure up heavy-set, red-faced, “fire-and-brimstone” preachers, men of course, insisting that we are terrible people who must repent or we will go to hell.

But the real point of the idea that we are all sinners is closer to what de Botton says. “We are all inherently flawed, broken beings.” You, me, the whole lot of us. Instead of terrifying us, the imperfection/ sinner thing can be freeing and realistic. It can lead to compassion for others and for ourselves, which seems to have been Jesus’ modus operandi. 

And indeed, de Botton’s second rule is “Friendship.” “Given that each one of us is weak, mad and mistaken, we will want to be slower to judge, quicker to understand,” and to be kind.

Note how that works. An awareness of the universality of sin and brokenness doesn’t lead to judgmentalism but to compassion, to greater kindness. I’ve sort of thought that was the implication of “original sin” or “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” i.e. sympathy for one another. Compassion towards others — and also toward ourselves.

So often church became a place where we went to pretend we had it all together, that we were, if not perfect, then well on the way. What a liberation to re-frame church as a community where the unifying truth is that “we are all flawed and broken beings” in need of grace. (Recall what I said in my last blog, “the gospel is a bullshit detector.” )

At our Sunday evening book group, we welcomed Jim Lynch the author of the book under discussion, Before the Wind. I gave a thumbnail on Lynch’s book in a recent blog.

In his books Lynch’s characters are all wildly imperfect, some more so than others, but all in some way broken and crazy. Often the cracks in his characters are, in Lynch’s deft hands, the source of great humor. “The cracks,” as someone has said, “let the light shine through.”

But the thing that Lynch couples with this parade of mad, flawed and perplexing people is an overarching outline of grace, of a mercy at work, in and through it all to bring not perfection but redemption. Another way to put this would be to say that Lynch gestures, amid life’s confusions and failures, toward the ultimate friendship of God. Jesus, one might say, is the face and the form of that friendship.

I’ll leave it to you to explore de Botton’s other six rules of life, knowing as you do that by definition you and I will break them at least as often, if not more so, than we keep them. Such is life!

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