catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 2 :: 2012.01.20 — 2012.02.02


Five lessons about living simply that I still haven’t really learned

It is strange to me that we have to learn to live simply.  It would make more sense that, in order to learn to survive in our complex world, we would have to work really hard at learning to multitask, to deal with stress, to compartmentalize our thinking, to learn to not pay attention to the bigger picture and so on.  These things sounds unnatural and difficult to learn — but living simply ought to be easy.  All we have to do is step out of the rat race and relax, right?  Well, it would seem so, but for me anyway I find that I can be aware of some basic truths on one level, yet have trouble putting them into practice consistently.   Here are five lessons that, on the one hand, I believe are so obvious that they almost go without saying — yet on the other hand, one can spend the rest of one’s life trying to live out.

1. You cannot reduce clutter by buying more things.

Since before I was even able to think a coherent thought, I have lived in a society (twentieth and twenty-first century North America) that has followed one basic principle across almost all racial, ethnic, cultural and economic strata: that if you have a problem, if something is wrong in your life, there is a product you can purchase that can help.  Since the simple living movement began gaining widespread interest, there has been a snowstorm of products that are there to help me live more simply.  I have a large bookshelf in the basement of our house that is loaded with books that I own but haven’t yet read.  In a pile on top of that bookcase is a remarkably thin book filled with hints about living simply.  I do intend to read it some day — but for now, I think on some level I take pride in having bought it, as if bringing this book into my house will somehow help me live more simply. And perhaps when I read it, it will.  For the moment, though, it is an object I have to store (and occasionally dust), an obligation I need to fulfill, and it represents three or four hours of time spent reading that I haven’t been able to find time for.  Buying that book has not simplified my life, but has, in some small way, complicated it.  

We have two amazing daughters and last year, after sharing a bedroom for eight years, they requested that they each have their own room.  Amy and I told them that would be fine, but it would mean moving our current study into the playroom so that the study could become a bedroom and that many of the toys that filled the toy room would have to find new homes.  This job turned out to involve several months of sorting toys, brainstorming who could use them, asking our friends if they were interested, and delivering the toys.  Some toys went to the thrift store.  A select set of toys that had great value went into boxes to be stored in each girl’s closet.

So far, so good.  We have reduced clutter by getting rid of some things.  Both parents and children were surprised at how many things were easy to let go.  Often Amy and I assumed that some toys had great sentimental value for the girls, but found that we were wrong.  Almost as a rule, the value the girls placed on toys seemed to have little to do with the original purchase price of the object.  These lessons seemed good lessons for all of us to learn.

But then came the time to move into the new rooms.  And that meant organizing closets.  And that, in turn, meant it was time to think about storage systems to simplify the organization of their closets.  And that meant checking catalogues, checking online, trying not only to imaging all the stuff our daughters needed to store now, but also to anticipate their storage needs in middle school, high school and beyond.  And if I am honest, I admit there was something fun about that, considering buying some bins and racks and shelving that, once installed, would look organized and neat and perfect.

It was my youngest daughter who pointed out that the concrete block and 2×6 temporary shelves that I had put in there to hold the violins, cleaning supplies, comic books and art supplies that had been stored in the closet when it was in our study seemed just about perfect for her needs.  Reluctantly, we agreed and put away the Ikea catalogue, a little disappointed that we wouldn’t get to buy lots of plastic bins with umlauted, Swedish-sounding names.   Lesson learned (though probably soon forgotten): buying more things will never do anything but add to the number of things you already have.


2. Living simply does not involve more commitments; it involves focusing on fewer.  

I want to live a full life.  In high school, I enjoyed throwing myself wholeheartedly into things — drama, debate, forensics, a travelling chapel team, track team, hanging out with my friends, essay contests, fine arts competitions — and found I really enjoyed the adrenaline rush of doing excellent work in one activity, then stepping directly into another activity and immersing myself in that.  I still do enjoy that fullness.  But I have found, as many of my friends have in their lives, that there is an extremely fine line between a full life of excellent participation in worthwhile activities, and an over-full life of harried racing from activity to activity, always running late and never having the time to do anything very well. 

The first of these two is deeply satisfying and is the way I really want to live my life.  The second is frustrating and unfulfilling and not the way I want to live my life.  It would seem to me that would make my choices pretty obvious and simple.  But, of course, it doesn’t.  The fact is, I cannot predict which opportunities will result in good satisfying work and which will send me over the edge into months of berserk, frenetic activity — always behind, always guilty, and never really accomplishing anything in a worthwhile way.

The essayist Scott Russell Sanders, in a wonderful little book called Hunting for Hope, states quite clearly what I am looking for: 

If you imagine trying to solve all the world’s problems at once, you’re likely to quit before you finish rolling up your sleeves.  But if you stake out your own workable territory, if you settle on a manageable number of causes, then you might accomplish a great deal, all the while trusting that others elsewhere are working faithfully in their own places.

I really like that idea of finding my own workable territory and working hard there.  Sanders takes that term “workable territory” from a quote by naturalist Gary Snyder who speaks not so much of simplicity, but about stewardship:

Stewardship means, for most of us, find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there — the tiresome but tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters, local politics, even while holding in mind the largest scale of potential change, get a sense of the workable territory, learn about it, and start acting point by point.

Both of these quotes talk about finding a focus and then sticking with it.  Our family finds this to be a continual struggle.  We are blessed with so many opportunities, from my daughter’s geography bee, to violin lessons, to a chance to volunteer for an organization that packages food for famine victims, to my wife’s book club, to serving in a church office, to maintaining relationships with friends scattered across the country.  And all of these are foci that matter to us.  Sometimes however, we need to set aside a weekend to stay in our own house, in our own neighborhood.  Sometimes, we need to take the time to play music, draw and write on our own schedule.  Sometimes we find that the best vacation is going to a place where there isn’t a new thing to do every day.  Sometimes we need to tell our daughters (or they need to tell us) that we have agreed to do too much and we need to find some ways to scale back.  And then we do.  And then time passes and too many opportunities present themselves again.


3.  You can make more sense of life if you have fewer information sources and less data, rather than having more. 

My friend was bemoaning the passing of the newspaper in his town.  The folks who own and run the paper had become convinced that, with people’s shortened attention spans and the arrival of instant information on the internet, the local independent newspaper had run its course.  My friend was complaining that when he sits down for breakfast, he likes to have a single thing that he can read to find out about news and features, do the crossword and read the comics.  Though he is about the most tech savvy person I know, he points out that a newspaper can hold more readable stories on a single page than an iPad. 

I consider it a blessing that I can, in a matter of moments, find thousands of information sources about a single topic.  At the same time, I also recognize that I don’t read all of them.  In fact, I seldom look at any topic any further than the first four Google search result pages.  My computer gives me access to far more information than I need, but usually it doesn’t offer much that will really make me think.  For that, I don’t need a river of information that is wider and less deep.  I need something that will let me dive deeply into a topic without being interrupted.  I need something that will give me time to think and consider.

I have owned a Kindle for over a year now.  I find it a useful device that allows me to carry a small library with me, even when I am travelling long distances.  Several acquaintances, though, have asked me if I am interested in upgrading to the Kindle Fire.  It does more, you see.  You can access anything on the internet.  Just think: more websites, e-mail, games, streaming movies and video, music — what an amazing and versatile device.  My answer to them is no, I am not considering getting a Kindle Fire.  I don’t want a device that holds my books to tempt me with e-mail or Scrabble, mostly for two reasons.  First, I love to read.  Second, I don’t think I could resist the e-mail or Scrabble temptations.  It would be, without question, useful to have access to those things through my Kindle, but it would turn my Kindle from a library into a mall. 

I am not saying that we should get our news from a single source, or that one perspective on something is enough.  I am saying that I can learn more about a topic by reading three well-crafted books, than I can by looking at three thousand websites. However, though I know this and believe it, I will not be getting rid of my internet connection anytime soon (though perhaps I should).  Rather, to keep my life more simple, I will continue to block out time away from a screen to read a book. 


4. Worrying about living simply does not equal living simply.

Sometimes when we have people over to eat and they ask about our applesauce (which is remarkable) or our blueberry pie (also remarkable) and we tell them that we can the applesauce each year in October, or that we freeze berries in the summer so that we can enjoy them all year, that person says, “Oh, yeah, I have been meaning to start doing that myself one of these years.”

Sometimes, when we are out with some friends, and we meet a new person who starts talking about their new community garden, or their recently acquired ability to play the banjo, Amy or I will say, “You, know, we have really been meaning to do that ourselves one of these days.”

And whenever the topic of cutting back, living simply, or living within one’s means come up — especially when connected to specific examples of people who did away with their cable service, or cut back their hours so they could spend more time with their kids, or moved from a McMansion into a much more modest home — the story seems to be met by a chorus of comments about how everyone listening had just been saying recently how much they want to do that themselves.  Often immediately after that, though, come the retractions.  People begin listing the reasons why, though they would like to wean their children off game systems, and get rid of the video player in the minivan, they can’t do it because of this extenuating circumstance or that particular reason or this exception or that complicating factor.  And the upshot is that it is easier to apologize and fret and worry and equivocate than it is to change one’s life. 

Really, though, if I am serious about finding more time to garden, I need to quit some of the things I am currently doing and start gardening.  If I want to try to get by with just biking the 17 miles to work each day, rather than taking my car, I need to get on my bike at six in the morning and have a go at it.  If I want to stop using my credit cards and buy only that for which I can pay, I need to cut up the credit cards.  I know this.  Occasionally I follow it.  Mostly, though, I keep fretting and worrying rather than doing.

5. You cannot live simply without time to reflect (and often we don’t have time to reflect until we are living simply).

I think the key to living simply may be finding the space to think about what we are doing in our lives, and to be intentional about the things we want to change.  Sometimes the philosophy behind we you are doing makes all the difference.  The elders and deacons of our church have a retreat to a Catholic retreat center sponsored by the Cenacle Sisters and located in downtown Chicago.  Elders and deacons returning from this retreat often speak of how wonderful it is to get some distance from the day-to-day pressures of the church and to try to get the long view.   My mother has been kind enough to take care of our children for a couple of days each summer to allow me and my wife to spend some time together.  Often this is the time of the year when we reflect on things we are enjoying about our life, and consider things we wish to change.  Every couple of years or so, my two best friends, whom I have known since middle school, spend a long weekend in January or February at my friend’s family cottage on the shores of Lake Michigan.  We read and talk and hike and eat.  And at some points during the weekend, we think of things we wish were different.

Often though, our lives are so cluttered with things and commitments that we are unable to get the distance necessary to consider what we really need and what we don’t, what we like to live with and what we would be better without, and what we should spend time on and what we should stop spending time on.  If we can’t get this distance, we can’t change.

What does all this mean? 

I think maybe there is a theological parallel here.  I know some believers who live a life of fear. They have to do the right things, go to church, eat the right food and be good people so that they can go to heaven (or avoid hell).  I know other believers who accept the grace of Christ’s sacrifice and live mainly out of gratitude for that sacrifice.  This attitude allows them to go to church not because they have to, but because they want to out of thankfulness.  It allows them to eat thoughtfully not out of a fear of death or retribution, or out of a spirit of regret, wishing they could eat fast food and junk food, but because they want to eat good food.  It allows them to work for social justice in the world not out of an obligation, but out of desire to show their gratefulness.

In the same way, I think that some people want to live on less out of a position of fear — a recognition that if they continue on the path they are on, they will end up deeply in debt or the demands of working every hour to make more money will cause them to break down in very unhealthy ways.  This means, however, that any decision to eliminate some spending or complication from their lives will be met with resistance.  They don’t want to give up cable TV, their  season tickets, the kids’ play group, their second car, a bigger house, the kids’ drama classes, their three church committees, French lessons, the cooking club, their boat, the kids’ travelling soccer commitments, their museum subscription, the annual summer trip, their data plan, their tradition of decorating the house for Halloween, Christmas and Easter, the supper club, the kids’ karate lessons, PTA, the four 5K races each year, the company picnic, their CD collection, their subscriptions to Cooking magazine, Outside Magazine and Simple Living magazine, and on and on and on.  We don’t want to give all this up because it will make our lives less rich or more boring.  So when I list all of these things and I look at how crazy my life is and I know I have to eliminate some things, I really resent having to drop any one of these things.  I am overcommitted and I know it.  I want to live simply, but can’t I do that by adding something to my life rather than taking something away?

The short answer is no.  If you want your life to be simpler and more fulfilling, you need to eliminate clutter (both material and obligation) and you need to do some things instead that don’t involve taking the easy way out.  Plant and tend a garden through the whole season.  Spend years learning to play a musical instrument.  Kill your television and read some books.  Volunteer somewhere.  In short, stop living on the run from busyness and start living simply.

It is a good idea.  Now if I can only learn to follow that advice.

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