The Five Rules of Being A Grown-Up

Anne Lamott, bestselling author of Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, posted a video […]

CJ Green / 9.10.15

Anne Lamott, bestselling author of Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, posted a video in late August during which a couple of “sweet, wild” Jesuits interviewed her and her good friend Father Tom Weston. They discussed the value of humor and exhaustion,, and the Pope. The video has since disappeared, but I’ve thankfully pulled some of the best quotes.


In the beginning, she shares some of her own spiritual story, explaining that despite growing up with atheist parents and actively resisting Christianity:

“I always felt the presence of God. I always felt that someone was listening if I said, ‘Hello…?’ And that’s how, to this day, I tell people to begin prayer: I say, ‘Hello…?'”

She briefs us on how alcoholism impacted her life, and how humor, particularly one book by the “cranky” Malcom Muggeridge, played a key role in changing her:

He had been a hero of my father’s but a passionate atheist who became a passionate Catholic. He wrote a book called Jesus RediscoveredHe was so crabby and awful, and funny. And that really helped me a lot, I felt like I could breathe again. It wasn’t like that deadly earnestness–spare me the deadly earnestness. But Malcome Muggeridge and also CS Lewis, because he had a great sense of humor also, and my heart started softening towards Jesus, and I just started to feel him…. I know this is kinda crazy, but it just felt like he was after me. Not like the hounds of heaven. But more like a little feral cat that’s got its sights on you. And if you feed a feral cat even once, it’s no longer a feral cat, it’s now your cat. And so I didn’t wanna feed it….

I surrendered. I didn’t have the beautiful moment where the clouds opened up and the choir of nine hundred people on the stage swaying suddenly burst into song. I just said, Oh eff it. I said, I’m done…. I’m exhausted….

Tom and I have talked a lot over the years about how important exhaustion is to your spiritual walk, to accepting grace, to being available for grace. It’s just to say, What? I’ve tried everything, I hate everyone. I don’t believe in much, but what? And then the phone rings or the mail comes or the door opens, or you trip and sprain your ankle.

These random moments, for Lamott, serve as moments of grace, when we get slapped around, pulled out and reminded of the world outside ourselves.


She talks elegantly about the human condition, and about the inescapable little-l laws that all adults face (25:35):

I’ll tell you the most important thing Tom taught me, and this was twenty-some years ago. The five rules of being a grown-up are:

  1. You must not have anything wrong with you, or anything different about you.
  2. If you have something wrong or different about you, you really need to correct it. You need to be able to pass under all circumstances.
  3. If you can’t correct it, or change it in any way, you should just pretend that you have. It’s not a problem anymore. Good news!
  4. If you can’t even pretend not to have corrected the situation, you should just not show up, because it’s very painful for the rest of us to see you in your current condition.
  5. If you’re going to insist on showing up, you should at least have the decency to be ashamed.

And that’s what every single one of us is against.

Lamott recognizes that the expectations of adults are not only high but condemning, and that the Gospel isn’t about sugarcoating, pretending, or smoothing things over. The focus is and always has been honestly confessing the problem and letting God take it from there:

That’s the human condition, that we’re all incredibly screwed up, and neurotic, and life is hard, and we’re very, very, very vulnerable, and people like to go around saying, ‘You can’t have faith and fear at the same time,’ but, you know, God doesn’t say that. Jesus doesn’t say that. Jesus says what Tom always says, which is ‘Have you eaten? You’re all driving me crazy, let’s eat, and later maybe we’ll go for a walk.’

Early on in the talk, she describes the value of surrender:

With everyone that we’ve ever known or loved who has gotten sober, or off whatever their addiction was, it begins with running out of good ideas. It begins with this pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization with your best efforts, and then you say the first great prayer, which is, ‘Help.’

And most great literature, most great plays, most great everything begins with somebody who has driven him or herself to the very point of suicide with good ideas. And one more good idea, one more way that you might be able to break the code so you can keep drinking or keep having affairs or keep doing this or whatever and then finally you run out.

Tom, who seems to be gentle a wealth of wisdom, adds:

If folks have a little bit of recovery, you’re starting to be able to breathe again, you look back on that and you can see it as the gift of desperation. And when you’re desperate enough to be asking for help, you realize you cannot survive as a self-contained, self obsessed unit. And you start asking for help. And sometimes we ask for help with conditions, like, I only want to ask for help from smart people, or from cute people, but if you’re really desperate, you’ll climb into the boat regardless of who else is there, and it changes everything.


Part of Lamott’s surrender involves regularly admitting that she’s old–only sixty-one–but luckily for us she provides some helpful wisdom from the rocking chair:

Young people know more than they’re ever gonna know again. You get a little older, and life just smacks you around, and there are unsurvivable losses, and things don’t make sense, at all, or they make sense briefly. And there’s this crazy mixed grill of beautiful and spiritual and lovely, and nightmarish and Baltimore and Nepal and tragedy, and blessings. And you know less and less. You begin to get a better sense of humor about yourself. But when you’re desperate, you become teachable, and you become receptive.

And you also realize that hell is being stuck in your own mind, in the I-self-me, and in this trapped little container. Pema Chodron, the wonderful Buddhist monk, has a book and the title is The Wisdom of No Escape, and the wisdom of knowing there’s no way out, and you are gonna die, and how are you gonna live in the face of that? Well maybe sit down, maybe have a glass of water and breathe. Maybe that’s what heaven would be like, to have a glass of cold water, and to just stop. And you realize that heaven will be about somehow hooking into something so much bigger than your own scared little thinking self […]

People call me and they’re depressed, and they’re fixated, and I say go to the health store and flirt with all the old people, and then call me back. And it wrecks their obsession and their fixation, because they get happy. They get the spirit in them, they some flow going.

More advice comes addressed to her thirty-year-old self, to whom she wishes she would have said:

This is the body you were born with. This body is going to look like itself the entire time you’re here, and all you can do is love it and nourish it and rub lotions into your thighs; it’s not going to change dramatically.

And about forgiveness, one of the most difficult issues to tackle, Lamott posits that the real problem is, for all of us, ‘me.’ Talking about herself, she says:

This woman was making me crazy and judging me for not being thin enough or not being this or having enough money or whatever, and I had to come to this terrible truth, which I believe is the root of forgiveness, which is that it was me… It’s me. It’s me that’s so afraid, it’s me that’s so afraid of people, it’s me that thinks I’m better than everybody else. And then you can start to deal with it. You can take an action of forgiveness, which is to make myself a cup of tea and sit down with the new New Yorker.


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One response to “The Five Rules of Being A Grown-Up”

  1. Reassuring and uplifting and calming.

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