catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 2 :: 2012.01.20 — 2012.02.02


The good life

Reclaiming the joy of simplicity

Simple living isn’t easy. As author Doris Janzen Longacre once put it, “The trouble with simple living is that, though it can be joyful, rich, and creative, it isn’t simple.” That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Simple living: just another yoke. For many, the promise of “living simply so that others may simply live” has been suffocated like a flickering flame desperate for air. Stripped of grace, diluted to a list of rules and weathered by age, what once prompted a sigh of relief now seems to prompt nothing but guilt and anxiety. Do this and don’t do that. Buy this and don’t buy that. Use this word but never that word. Indeed, if this is simple living, I’m not interested. Happily — and despite what some will demonstrate — it isn’t. 

At one time (perhaps still, for some of us), simple living seemed like a radical and refreshing alternative. I can remember my first read through Living More with Less on the ride home from a Goshen College visitation in the winter of 2010. It wasn’t the first time I had heard of simple living. Nonetheless, the book remains the fullest depiction and representation of simple living that I have engaged so far. From what we eat, to how we warm our homes, Living More with Less is as enjoyable as it is prophetic (which is why you are all going to read it after this!).

It makes sense, then, when we discover ourselves driven more by pessimism and legalism than creativity that we also discover confusion. How is it that such a beautiful way of life can become such a source of negativity? Why is it that our response to injustice is so often marked by vitriol, sarcasm and bitterness? When did we abandon the act of responding faithfully with joy? When did we forget what simple living is all about?

In a world where every single person, system and institution is broken, it’s all too easy to become cynical. Eager to bring a word of hope to the darkness through a simple life, we eventually find ourselves feeling hopeless — hopeless when we’ve given our all and the world still sucks, hopeless when we make decisions that run counter to our anti-consumerist/anti-consumption/anti-capitalist agenda, hopeless when we realize we can’t do simplicity alone. Laboring against so many forces, it’s easy to forget exactly what it is we’re working for. It’s easy to believe that hopelessness has the last word. It’s easy to forget that part of this picture involves grace.

Grace. What an elegant, liberating and necessary concept. When we are reminded of how incapable we are, it arrives gentle and ready to embrace. And when we are prepared to look down our nose at the “offender,” it whispers a reminder that we aren’t perfect either. Grace is an expansive and inescapable reality. If we plan on making any sort of progress we ought to embrace this idea and learn how to live in its balance.

That said, simplicity cannot be considered grace alone, lest we invoke its benefits in a fit of lethargy, dressing our lives in beliefs instead of belief and action. While simple living is often (and understandably) thought to be executed only through action, belief may play a more important role than we realize. When we abstract the vision of a faithful life from its context within our beliefs, it becomes little more than merciless submission to bondage. Without some sort of personal and internal qualifier, simple living is essentially reduced to an arbitrary social mandate.

In other words, what makes simple living good is not merely the actions of an individual, but actions as the manifestation of an individual’s particular motives. The significance of gardening, for example, derives not only from its normative functionality but also from the gardener’s understanding of purpose in a greater web of social decisions and responsibilities. These beliefs serve as part of the foundation for any sort of faithful living. They do not, however, serve as an excuse for adulterating the Gospel to a hyper-personal list of sentiments.

Moreover, in an attempt to keep ourselves from falling into the trap of all belief and no action, we have forgotten exactly why simple living is so important in the first place. The whole point of this thing should be wrapped up in a number of good ambitions: social justice, spirituality, health, frugality and conservation (to name a few). Without reflection on these desires you can’t do simple living. Henry David Thoreau said it best, “Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.”

Simple living: joyful, rich, and creative. That’s what it’s all about, in both word and deed. Just as important as how we live is why we live that way: remembering why we have committed ourselves to a different way of living, remembering the first time we caught a glimpse of what living simply actually meant, remembering the vision. Likewise, how we live “simply” is just as important as why, reforming our everyday way of life, reforming our economic, social, and political practices and reforming our world.

We won’t get this balance perfect the first time around. We won’t get it perfect ever. But we can keep on trying anyway, knowing and delighting in the fact that we will fail and that grace will paradoxically keep us focused on justice. It will never be easy. It will never be normal. And it will never be simple. Maybe it sounds crazy, but I think we can live with that. 

your comments

comments powered by Disqus