“Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion."
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How are you doing?
Remember when the usual answer to that question was, “fine”? What may now be the more common answer is: “busy.” It’s a very popular thing to say. For one thing, it’s often true. For another thing, it has the benefit of making us seem virtuous, or at least decent. Decent people, according to general expectation, keep themselves occupied. Moreover, saying “busy” has the further advantage that it might deter whoever you’re talking to from asking you to do something more.
We guard our time, because we have so little of it.
Juliet Schor’s 2010 book Plenitude – along with Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book Walden -- have been inspirations to me. Throughout Walden, Thoreau is constantly seeking to simplify his lifestyle: he patches his clothes rather than buy new ones, he minimizes his consumer activity, and relies on leisure time and on himself for everything. He asks us:
“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed at such desperate enterprises?”Yet for the last century and a half, the problem Thoreau identified has grown steadily worse.
Juliet Schor’s book adds 21st-century empirical studies to Thoreau’s 19th-century insights. The data tell us – if data we needed -- that US culture generally has not taken Thoreau to heart. She writes:
“Millions of Americans have lost control over the basic rhythm of their daily lives.Temporal impoverishment: we are time poor. We don't have enough of it.
They work too much, eat too quickly, socialize too little, drive and sit in traffic for too many hours, don’t get enough sleep, and feel harried too much of the time.
The details of time scarcity are different across socioeconomic groups, but as a culture we have a shared experience of temporal impoverishment.”
What can you do about this? I’m not talking about going to live in a hut by a pond by yourself – although, if you can manage it, for a year or so, as Thoreau did, with occasional visits and trips to town, it does sound like a wonderful exercise. I’m just asking: Is it possible to slow down, simplify, de-clutter, go ahead and drop some of those balls we’re juggling and not pick them up? Is that possible? I don’t know. We’re New Yorkers. We're like, “Stop doing stuff? What’s he talking about? Stupidest thing I ever heard.”
You know your life. Is having less stuff and doing less stuff even a remote option? I don’t know. What I’d like to do is invite us to think about that.
Thoreau thought that the way to simplify, slow down, live a more authentic and present life, was to get away from modern conveniences – which, for him would have been things like steam engines, sewing machines, combine harvesters, and telegraph machines. Instead, we have persistently followed a different path: more and more devices and "conveniences." It seemed so logical. Creation of labor saving devices will save us from labor. By definition, right? And if we are saved from labor, then we have more leisure. Also, by definition, right?
Yet here we are with our microwave ovens, ice-making refrigerators, washers, dryers, and dishwashers, home computers, cell phones, interstate highways and jet airplane travel, central heating and air conditioning. And somehow we are busier than ever.
In some ways you could say our devices liberated us. In some ways you could say they enslaved us.
Robotics and automation do more and more of our manufacturing for us – and, indeed, more and more of our farming. Restaurants and prepared packaged food items do more and more of our cooking for us. And somehow we are busier than ever.
Freed from what we used to do, the labor force shifted away from industry and agriculture and into the service sector. We work frenetically in order to pay for all these conveniences and each other’s services.
Our lives are complicated. Would it be possible to simplify?
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This is part 1 of 3 of "The Call to Simplicity"
Part 2: "Simplicity For You; For the Earth"
Part 3: "Give Up Saving the World"