Principle 4: Freely Chosen Constraints

Define the limits within which you will be truly free.

On December 10, 1941, Thomas Merton, at the age of 26, entered a Trappist monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky, embarking on a life devoted to silent prayer and contemplation. He had been to the monastery before, to visit. But this time, he was coming to stay. For good:

The Bardstown bus was half full, and I found a somewhat dilapidated seat, and we rode out into the wintry country, the last lap of my journey into the desert…I could not get my bearings until some low, jagged, wooded hills appeared ahead of us, to the left of the road, and we made a turn that took us into rolling, wooded land.

Then I saw that high familiar spire.

I rang the bell at the gate.  It let fall a dull, unresonant note inside the empty court…Presently, the window opened, and Brother Matthew looked out between the bars, with his clear eyes and greying beard.

“Hullo, Brother,” I said.

He recognized me, glanced at the suitcase and said: “This time have you come to stay?”

“Yes, Brother, if you’ll pray for me,” I said.

Modern men and women bristle at the very idea of a young man locking himself behind the walls of a monastic enclosure. It’s like going to prison. Indeed, men and woman living in monasteries call their little rooms “cells.”

Yet, those who enter such a life freely regard it as anything but prison. After Thomas Merton entered the monastery…

 …Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom.”[1]

Freely chosen constraints simplify any undertaking.

For example, for me, it’s actually easier to write poetry that conforms to some kind of form or scheme, such as a sonnet, or a limerick, or a haiku, rather than free verse.[2] Even if I’m trying to write free verse, imposing some kind of structure on myself that I make up, even if it’s just for that particular poem, somehow sets me free to be more creative. When I was writing my novel, I aimed for twenty pages per chapter. Many of my chapters ended up longer or shorter than this, but the constraint gave me a goal. A book review I just wrote for a newspaper had to be between 500-600 words.

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of 37 Signals,[3] include in their book of advice for business and life and chapter called “Embrace constraints.”[4] Deliberately setting limits forces you to innovate.

Once your framework is in place, there are certain decisions you no longer need to make:

  • both marriage and a vow of celibacy simplify one’s relationships with the opposite sex.
  • actress Jamie Lee Curtis wears only black & white
  • vegetarians can walk past the meat case without a first glance, let alone a second one

Something to think about:

Are you saying “yes” to too many things?


[1] The Seven Storey MountainThomas Merton, 1915-1968

[2] free verse: non-metrical, non-rhyming lines that closely follow the natural rhythms of speech. See the full definition, plus examples, at The Poetry Foundation.

[4] Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

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