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14 May 2024

Rules to live by: Rule 1

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

It feels like I’m always on planes these days. Laptop out, shoes off, passport tucked under my jacket, under my tiny bag of liquids. Airplane coffee, airport porridge, boarding announcements in three languages. This plane, though, is taking me home, and I feel the bubbling of excitement that comes as if I’m going to a fabulous beach holiday—this time just for home: my own bed, my own dog, my own friends.

Returning home to this French experiment makes my heart happy. The deep exhale of the new massive kitchen, the shared dining room table, my mother’s stories about what happened at home while I was away. My face must light up when I talk about it here because people outside are always asking about this place, about what it’s like to live in community. Everyone who asks has their doubts, robed in questions about what we’re balancing. How do you make decisions? What happens when you can’t agree? Do you ever get tired of people and just want to be alone?

People peering in want to know how we keep ourselves on a straight and careful path. What are the rules we’ve all signed on to? Who came up with them? What happens to rule breakers? So, I thought I’d play in the next few blogs with this question of rules.

Rule #1: There are no rules.

Ok, that’s not really true. There are agreements we have made together but we make them differently than most people think. For example, our first rule was to not make any rules at the beginning. We wanted to see how we were living, what things we needed to call out, agree to, protect. But we didn’t want to pre-suppose all those things, because most (all?) of those presuppositions would be about fear, and we didn’t want to build our community on the platform of our fears. 

Here’s an example. At first, people were (rightfully) worried about how we’d share expenses for food and drink in our communal kitchen. We have different tastes, different incomes, different ways of making choices about how to spend our resources. (I get this fear deep in my bones. For the long years of graduate school and early career, I would so carefully order a glass of tap water and the cheapest vegetarian thing on the menu when I went out to dinner with friends, and when someone casually offered to just split the bill equally, anxiety washed over me as I watched a week’s worth of food money pour into a single meal.) We talked, before living together, about how we would make it fair. All of the potential solutions were annoying, though, so we decided to just hold off. Let’s all just live for a month or two and then see what happens and whether we need a rule.

Here’s what happens: Everyone goes grocery shopping. Everyone buys food for the collective. No one rides on the good will of others. The people who care about wine buy wine. The people who care about fancy cheese buy fancy cheese. If someone remembers you are looking for those yummy shortbread cookies with the salted chocolate, and they see them, they buy them for you. When you see the mangos someone else loves, you buy them. We check in every once in a while—does this seem fair? Do we need a rule? But it seems fair. We don’t need a rule. So, rule #1 really is: Don’t make rules out of an imagined fear, make rules out of watching the current moment and seeing what needs a rule.

We do this at Cultivating Leadership too, which is how we came to believe it would work. Every time we want to make a rule at Cultivating Leadership, we check in with ourselves. Is this a place where we are really making a rule to avoid an awkward conversation? Is it a place where we’re making a rule because we’re afraid? The shorthand question we ask at work is: Are we trying to keep bad things from happening or are we trying to create the conditions to make good things happen. What we’ve noticed is that rules are nearly always the former and rarely the latter.

This is not to say that we should never make rules to keep bad things from happening—at home or at work. We have a rule at home that says the sharp knives can’t go in the dishwasher or the drying rack—they have to be handwashed and dried and put away. This protects the knives from harm and protects people from being injured on knives left out. We have a rule at work that says we have to examine our data protection on our computers every six months. This protects our clients and us from the various ways people try to steal things. Some harm is real, and rules can help us avoid it.

But so many rules represent our worries more than our reality. Our worries represent our assumptions about what needs to be protected, held safe. When you’re doing something new like this French experiment, there are a lot more worries than in our regular lives. Looking at these worries shows us the prevailing winds of our habits, like the bent and twisted olive trees show us the prevailing winds of the land. The life we have chosen is unusual—it blows in a different direction. Mutual decision-making, dinners together, a kitchen we all share. We understand why people are so curious. But from this perch, we can look over and see the prevailing winds of the more common choices we made before now: our own kitchens, our own choices about paint color, our own evenings alone. From here, we think to ask: How do you handle being on your own so often—aren’t you lonely? How do you manage to do all the cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping on your own—aren’t you exhausted? What happens when you and your partner are raging and can’t find your way out—don’t you miss the support of others who help you see your relationship in a new way? How do you laugh? Play cards? Stretch your edges?

So perhaps we should all be examining the rules that guide our lives, whatever shape those rules might take. You’ve seen our first rule. Keep posted and I’ll offer some others. In the meantime, you can tell me about your rules. What rules guide your life? How do those rules show the prevailing winds of your hopes and fears? 

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