catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 2 :: 2012.01.20 — 2012.02.02



Many will know that there is no shortage of literature making a case for simplicity in one form or another and in one area of life or another. Whether the source is a psychology textbook, religious order or supermarket self-help aficionado, the quest to find a reasoned argument for simplicity should not be a long one.

However, I want to briefly make the case that while there are these many convincing explanations for why simplicity is a concept worth considering, it may often take a leap of faith to begin a process of simplifying (and then a lot of practice).

I should say that I write as someone whose main interaction with simplicity is on a basis of aspiration and accident — which makes me in different ways both well-placed and poorly-placed to comment on the challenges of ingraining simplicity.

My most recent simplicity revelation came a few months ago when my bike recently broke down — and when I say “broke down,” I really mean that after (successfully) mending a punctured tube, I then couldn’t get the wheel back on. Over the last months, a few people have had a look and given up themselves, but the real barrier to me taking the bike in has been sloth and procrastination; there was always something else more urgent, or I couldn’t get up early enough to bring it in before work. The long and short of it is that, barring a few days where I’ve taken the bus, I’ve been walking to the office.

Now, I have one the most blessed commutes of all Londoners, with the options of a 7- to 8-minute bike ride, a 15-minute (including waiting) bus journey or a 25-minute walk, so perhaps (probably) I shouldn’t have been biking anyway, but it took a faulty bicycle to get me to try walking. And how wonderful it has been to walk! I’m forced to get up earlier, I have 25 minutes of time alone to walk and think, and perhaps most delightfully, I have gotten to know the area in between my house and work 100 times better than before. My cycle commute passes through the roundabout named as the most dangerous place for cyclists in London, so you’ll understand if my attention is quite focused to the road for my 7-minute jaunt. Walking, however, I can look around, experiment with new streets, pop in and out of street produce markets or cut through a park. Even now that my bike has returned to the land of the living (or land of the wheeled), I’m still walking most days.

It’s worth saying that it’s not unusual for behaviors to require practice before belief in their merits really sinks in. It will take the proven practice a practiced experience of getting a full night’s sleep to really and truly believe (in my experience at least) that the “extra hours” lost are worth the attentiveness gained. Similarly, it will take lasting experience of eating a healthy diet (I’m promised) to believe that the short-term pleasures of the local chip shop aren’t worth it. Prayer is perhaps an even more helpful example — it’s hard to know what you’re missing without it until you’ve gotten to know what it’s like with it.

However, I do think it’s still worth making a special mention of simplicity, only since (even more perhaps than the examples above) the outcome of simplicity is so surprising and often paradoxical. Hopefully I only need to recite the seemingly absurd dictum “less is more” for you to begin to see my point.

Simplicity is a profoundly counter-cultural ideal, and we can see the (at least seeming) paradoxes in the cultural narratives that we grow up with.  Just think of the messages we are pummelled with every day: that the key to economic security is building more, creating more, buying more; that the right mark of material success and improvement is a bigger house, with more possessions; that the best solution for bored children is more toys; that the solution to disconnected people is more ways to stay (or not) in touch; the list goes on.

Is it any wonder then, that when someone, say, suggests that one way to escape from the tedium that sometimes afflicts life, is in fact to get rid of things (possessions, commitments, whatever) — that we bristle a little? “No!” we cry out, “I’m bored and in a rut — I need to introduce something new, something more!” The idea of taking away, of paring down, of cutting out, in order to get more out of life, or to be more fulfilled, is very counter-intuitive (at least counter the intuition we tend to learn).

About six or seven years ago, my family made the decision to be done with exchanging gifts at Christmas. There are any number of holy reasons for doing this — a statement against consumerism, or a desire to preserve the sanctity of the Advent and Christmas seasons — but ours were none of these (though we would love to claim them!). Instead we realized that we all hated shopping and found it the number one stress of an otherwise peaceful and relaxing season, and that we were in fact, as free citizens, allowed to, as some have been quoted on the news as saying during these times of austerity, “cancel Christmas.” It would be dishonest to say that our Christmas has been revolutionized, but there’s no doubt in my mind that we are all a little more at ease without such preparations.

But, in as much as it wasn’t an act of principled anti-consumerism, ours was likewise not an act of principled simplicity.  In retrospect, it’s obvious in a way that by removing what is often a very significant part of the Christmas season, we have simplified things (and so received the rest of Christmas in greater abundance),but it was only a particular fervor to avoid shopping that found us in this place.

It takes a long time (I’m still waiting) to get to the point where it is intuitive that certain kinds of rules and constraints can be seen to give way to greater freedoms. Choice is one of the most prized values in our society, and so simplifying options deliberately may seem highly contrary.  It’s always going to be a difficult decision to pre-decide to limit your options — how stressful! how imprudent!

During high school and college, I never had my own digital camera, although I had long wanted one. Whenever I was out with the family, camera in tow, I had taken (embarrassingly) large numbers of photos (although the size of some Facebook albums does put things into perspective), hoping to never “miss a moment” (or more often a scenic view), frantic to record everything for future reference (I’ve never looked at these photos since). My plan had been to wait until I could afford a really good flash one and then, sometime while at college, go for it. As each year passed though, as I delayed the big purchase, I realized more and more how free I felt in social situations when I knew there was no camera. There was no moment to capture, no pose to organize, no good time to record — all I could do was be present in the moment, instead of worrying about losing it or missing it.

I decided that the responsibility to record my life in photos was one I didn’t want to bear — and didn’t need to bear! Instead of saving up for a slick camera, I decided none was exactly what I wanted. But it’s not necessarily that I wanted one less — I still had temptations and found moments when I thought it might be nice. But I realized that there were some pretty weighty reasons that I wanted to not have one at all — that in fact the NOT having of a camera had its own value. Though here too my found simplicity was fortuitous. I was lucky to have delayed so long — it took several years of wanting but not having to realize that, in fact, I wanted not.

I want to argue that we shouldn’t rely too heavily on rational arguments for simplicity, but recognize that the beauty and health and peace we get from simplicity is, given our cultural narrative, actually quite a surprising outcome, and concentrate on story, and anecdote and especially encouraged experimentation as primary tools of promoting simplicity.

My discovery of the freedom to walk, to slow down, to look around in my own area, only came through the happenstance of my bike being unusable. I’m sure that a number of readers will recognize the experience of having something break as a moment to find unimagined freedom and simplicity. Who hasn’t enjoyed treasured moments and the feeling of a holiday when “suffering” a large-scale power outage? What an unexpected place a power outage is to discover freedom!  Similarly, it’s not until your TV is broken, or you move somewhere without one, that you discover how nice it can be not to have the option of watching.

Although one can be convinced of the rationale of simplicity from a book or article (and I’ve read more than my fair share), it will take something a little more I think to truly believe in it as a principle — enough to abandon oneself to it. I’m certainly not there yet, and often wonder if there are any ways I’m living out anything like simplicity, but I’ve had just enough experience of it to trust that when I get a bit closer it’ll be great!

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