Monday, January 5, 2009

Simplicity: Myth or Reality?

I’ve read a few books recently about people visiting the Amish and being amazed by their “simplicity.” Somehow, I remain skeptical. I wonder, just what is this “simplicity” that seems so desirable and elusive?

We marvel about the simplicity of life when we go on vacation or visit another culture. Oh, how nice, they hang their laundry outside and it just dries in the sun. Oh, how yummy, a simple meal of rice and beans. Oh, how luxurious to turn off my cell phone for a few days.

We can learn from others’ ways of life, but does that mean it is better? Or is it merely a case of “greener grass” on the other side? Maybe what is actually attracting us is their contentment, not the way of life, which may be just their calling.

One of the books I read recently is “Plain and Simple.” As the author observes Amish farming life, she is enthralled by its “simplicity.” But I’m not convinced. It sounds fairly laborious and stressful to me. One of her examples is being able to appreciate nature:

“It was a magic moment as the caterpillar artfully dropped its skin, all the while holding onto the leaf suspended in air by one filament. A light green, glistening cocoon emerged… Magic without TV.”*(Bender, 108)

I understand how this sounds appealing, but for those of us who don’t live on a wildlife sanctuary, it’s not a daily reality. I do think it’s possible to find more active ways to learn than watching TV, via books, crafts, etc. But that takes time, and we typically have little to spare.

Thanks to blogging, we have access to many interesting accounts of people pursuing various methods of simplification: moving to a farm, trying to use all solar energy, growing their own food, not using plastic, making their own clothes, etc. But it seems to me, these changes bring up new challenges and complications.

When we talk about simplicity, sometimes we mean minimalism. And when we wish we had a simpler life, we really mean “easier.” We mean that we want less worries, less to think about. And we want a sense of purpose that isn’t cluttered by vain pursuits. An idle life and a busy life can be equally unfulfilling, if we aren’t pursuing the right path.

But aside from material possessions, is there really that much that we can give up? If we divide our time into work, church, housework, and social time, will there really be much left over? Have you ever tried fasting from TV, Internet, etc.? What was the result? Maybe you picked up a book for the first time in years, spent more time with your family, or went to bed earlier. Or maybe the time was quickly consumed by other necessities, like cleaning a room that you had neglected.

Yes, there are little ways to save time here and there, and it’s worth examining our habits to see what we can cut out. But can we achieve “simplicity”?

When I’m in Russia, a lot of time is spent on the road. A lot of people get home late from work, and then the phone calls begin. Going to bed late just isn’t avoidable. I’m tied to my cell phone and computer as a means of keeping in touch with people. I’m certainly guilty of wasting time and procrastinating, but among the activities that I’m strongly committed to, there aren’t many times when I can say “No.”

If you think back to a time when your life was different, before you made a certain decision, do you regret it? Would you regret it if you eliminated something intense, yet fulfilling, from your life for the sake of simplicity? Do you regret having children? Entering law school? Taking a certain job? I know for sure that my life was pretty ordinary before I started going to Russia. But without that, what would I be doing now?

In "Freedom of Simplicity," Richard Foster gives an interesting example of how different ways of life allow for different forms of simplicity. “The life of St. Francis gives us a healthy model of celibacy. (Examples of unhealthy celibacy abound in the history of the Church.) This matter of the single life should not be taken lightly. To be quite blunt about it, celibacy is necessary for some forms of simplicity. Francis could not have done what he did if he had not been single. Nor could Jesus.” **(Foster, 61) Can a man with a family say, “It doesn’t matter whether I eat tomorrow”? Can a pilot on the verge of making a transatlantic flight say “I don’t need to sleep tonight”? It’s clear that we have to worry about (and by that I mean take care of) our physical needs, to an extent.

In the Bible, I found that while some references to simplicity (especially in the OT) have a negative connotation tied to being foolish and silly; other references are often attributed to Christ and a word that could mean sincerity, singleness, humility, generosity, and even bountifulness (in the sense of giving). “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere (simple) and pure devotion to Christ.” -2 Cor. 11:3

When I think of sincerity, I think of being decisive. Doing something in sincerity means that I’m committed to it and know that it is the right thing to do. But there is no implication that it will save time or make my life easier.

What we can’t eliminate from our lives, we can give to the Lord. And where we can’t find rest, we can find rest in Him. “You can rest when you get to Heaven,” a church leader once told us in college, as we grew tired while planning for a conference. I thought that was a little harsh. But in some ways it’s true. We are not promised an easy life here on Earth, but having an eternal perspective can give us strength.

The Lord knows when we’re guilty of misplacing priorities and when we are simply working against obstacles such as weather, health, and other people’s schedules. And He will show us if there’s something we can give up. Sometimes I am even glad when I’m sick or when plans get cancelled, because I feel that the Lord knew I needed a day off. Or if something is cut out of my life, I am thankful that the decision was made for me.

Ironically, I find it difficult to define simplicity in brief terms. And it has taken me a good chunk of time. But I don’t regret this reflection. I hope you don’t, either.

*Bender, Sue. "Plain and Simple -A Woman's Journey to the Amish." San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1989.

**Foster, Richard J. "Freedom of Simplicity." San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1981.


  1. Лиза, замечательная статья! Моя на подходе :))

  2. Спасибо, будем сравнивать. :)

  3. I absolutely do NOT regret it! In fact, I want to read it several times. (I feel like going back to look at my comments to you... Did I say something about simplicity and Russia that caused you to write this? Because I do think of life in Russia as more "simple" and yet wonder....) What good food for thought! You would make an amazing Spiritual Director.

    Richard Foster is one of my favorite authors.

  4. Annie, I don't know if you said it in those terms. I think short-term trips to Russia might feel simple, if you take the positive aspects, but daily life is definitely complicated, especially if any kind of paperwork is involved!

  5. P.S. My jury's still out on Richard Foster. I actually didn't read the whole book, I just have read bits of it here and there.


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