Friday, September 11, 2009

True Simplicity

I read about a book called No Impact by Colin Beavan. Colin and his wife Michelle Conlin and their four year old child lived for a year trying to leave as little ecological footprint as possible on the planet. They functioned in a NYC apartment without electricity, bought only local food and didn't even use toilet paper.

This stirred my own thoughts about simplicity. Since simplicity has become more and popular, and because it is a core Quaker testimony, I'd like to offer some observations. (One caveat: this is obviously aimed at overconsuming people, not those who lack the necessities of life.) I invite you to offer your own thoughts:

1. True simplicity is religiously based. Beavan, for example, is a Zen Buddhist and truly seems to believe we are all interconnected. My own experience is that simplicity is either an exercise in confusion or a fashion statement (by which I mean an external pose adopted to attempt to look good to ourselves and others) until it springs from trying to live at one with God--as God would have us live--and with integrity. I use the word religiously deliberately because the word "spirituality" itself can be a fashion statement.

2. True simplicity is liberation not deprivation. The great lightbulb that goes off as you shed material stuff is: oh, this feels better. Life is better. When Roger and I went to one car for a time (we now have two again), the results were so good we were sorry when we had to again buy a second car. In the Upside Down Kingdom, the second car becomes the deprivation. It was the same with our television. After a brief detox period, we have never missed it. Less is more. The ability to own fewer material good is a luxury, at least for people at our level of U.S. affluence. If you are suffering through a sense of deprivation for giving something up, you may be experiencing holiness through self-denial, which can be a blessing, but it is not the same as simplicity.

3.True simplicity is rooted in humility. This connects to point two. It's a privilege and a grace to be able to do with less. Thus, we shouldn't beat people up or feel superior to them because our footprint is lighter on the earth. I remember once being infuriated by an article written by a 62 year old retired man with no children who had replaced his car with a bike. I was glad that he had done that but his tone of scorn towards people who still used cars was ruthless. He seemed entirely blinded to the fact that not everyone lived as he did: some people had young children, some people had demanding jobs far from home, some people had health issues ... the list could go on. We have to realize that what simplicity we can experience is a gift. We should never scorn the other person for not meeting our standard, especially when what to us looks like overconsumption may actually represent steps in the right direction for that person. When we start doing judging people, I believe we are functioning at the level of fashion statement.

4. True simplicity means finding the level of materialism that is right for you. It doesn't mean you have to give up everything. It doesn't mean you have to live on a farm or as the Amish do. As Quakers say, you shouldn't get ahead of your leading. I have a sense that we would all be most in touch with God at a far less materially cluttered level, but most of us can't do that.

5 True simplicity shouldn't be confused with lack of money. Because simplicity has become fashionable, people sometimes will say they are practicing simplicity when they can't afford a material good they would buy if they could. It becomes a way to put a good face on what for them is a bad situation. If you are moving into a smaller house with regret because your MacMansion was foreclosed on, you are not practicing simplicity. If you are trading the week at The Plaza for camping because your money is gone, you are not practicing simplicity. I think it's important to live with integrity and name things for what they are. I don't think there is any shame in saying: We didn't want to live in the cramped, lousy smaller house, but we could no longer afford the larger one. If the rest of us are practicing simplicity as humility, we won't make people feel bad for saying that. However, if a person moves into a smaller house or camps out and then realizes he or she loves it and truly wouldn't go back to their old way of living, they have achieved a measure of true simplicity.

Finally, can you be practicing true simplicity if you are doing it for the sake of the book contract?

1 comment:

Hystery said...

I've been enjoying your blog today and love this post especially. It is such a grace-filled interpretation and really resonates with my Pagan perspective. Thank you so much for writing it.