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The Problem with Form

“Form” is one of those words that has deepened the longer I have understood it. It was poetry that first opened my eyes to what that word really meant, but I see now that the importance of form transcends poetry and reaches into every aspect of life.

My wife is currently reading a book called A Mother’s Rule of Life (by Holly Pierlot). As I understand it, the book is written by a lady who was at her wit’s end with the stresses and weariness of child rearing until she reordered her home to imitate the monastic rule of life of monks and nuns. She tells of how setting a regular, ordered life transformed her home from chaos into peace–how she, her husband, and their children recognized the drastic change in their family when they were united by a set form. The goal, she clarifies, is deeper than having a schedule. “A Rule followed for the practical benefits alone is not a Rule of Life; it is a schedule. Duties attended to grudgingly or with reluctance do not make a Rule, for a Rule of Life must be lived as a response to the call of God…all that we do is done because God asks it of us. It is to accept and embrace my vocation because God wants me to, whether out of an initial sense of obedience to him or, later, simply because I love him, and to suffer the possibly ongoing struggle to adjust my attitudes and outlook toward his vision for my life, is the very heart of the Rule. It is to do all that he asks, because he asks it, out of love for him.” Sometimes we need a form to help us learn to live, how to love.

I find an increasing need for form in myself the older I get. Like my children, who rejoice at the predictable, daily rituals that we have, like praying and reading poetry, I take great comfort in having some way to guide my expectations of the day. As someone who struggles with anxiety–which one philosopher defined as a fear of the unknown–I find it hugely helpful to have a form set out for my day. In fact, when I examine most of the arguments that my wife and I have, I find that the large majority of them trace back in some way to disappointment coming from unfulfilled expectations. Because we as humans cannot live without form, we are constantly creating and projecting the ‘form’ that we expect the rest of our day to follow (i.e. I expect like a fool that my children will be perfect and selfless when I get home from work) and when reality comes along and reveals a different story we are disappointed (and I get frustrated when somehow my children don’t ‘conform’ to my unrealistic expectations). It’s the easiest thing to do this with relationships; how many times have you gotten angry at your spouse for not doing, acting, or saying the thing you wanted her to? Half the difficulty of life is in the uncertainty of the future–the lack of a form of life to predictably follow.

The problem is that creating form in one’s life is hard work, and it takes the one thing that I am in short supply of: discipline. As helpful as form is, I find a slothfulness in myself that makes me quick to abandon the form as soon as it becomes difficult to follow. I tell my students when practicing calligraphy that, at first, they need to carefully look at and study the perfect form of the letter they are imitating after every single letter that they draw–so that they can compare the form that they have created with the ideal form that they are trying to create. But it is easy to forget about that original form and slip into simply ‘what happens most naturally.’ The path of least resistance (abandonment of form) is so, so tempting.

This isn’t a New Year’s Resolution sort of post, but I have been thinking about being more deliberate in shaping who I want to be through establishing more form in my life. I am excited as I talk with my wife and hear the form that she is envisioning for our family, and how we might create and weave our forms together in harmony.

Pierlot writes, [here quoting her priest] “‘We must realize that law precedes love. The laws that God imposes on us from the outside are meant to discipline us, to help our hearts grow into the laws of love which motivate us from within.'” Form–a Rule of Life– helps us to grow in Godliness, and ultimately–through the patience and loving-kindness of our God– leads us to holiness.

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