Simplicity and Belonging

Simplicity, part 3

Simplicity Approach #3: Self-provisioning. Be a Do-It-Yourselfer. Have a garden that provides some of your food. Do your canning. Eat out less. Sew and knit – make your own clothes. Cut your own hair. Make your own bread. Hang clothes on a line instead of using the dryer. If you need a bookshelf, try making one (if the ones available at thrift shops -- often cheaper than the supplies for making your own -- are not the right size, shape, or style). This approach to simplicity is a helpful support for number two – reducing consumption. The more you make for yourself, the less you have to buy.

On the other hand, setting out to do more self-provisioning might increase your stress. If you take on Do-It-Yourself projects without making changes in number one – de-stressing and slowing down – then you’d only be adding more stress. More things to do! Now you’ve got to get that report out by Tuesday, get the kids to umpteen practices, games, rehearsals, and lessons, get the meals all prepared AND grow a garden, can the produce, hang the laundry out, bake bread, and sew yourself a new outfit – nothing too fancy!

Yet for many people, self-provisioning is a crucial part of life that feels simple, elegant, under control. Time spent knitting, or in the garden, or kneading dough can be the most relaxing, de-stressing part of the day. It goes to the issue Elgin called human scale: we see the effects of our labor because it’s right there in that garden in the back yard, those preserves in the freezer, or those clothes in the closet.

Self-provisioning is work that feels real. It's an antidote to the alienated labor that many feel in our jobs. Karl Marx was wrong about a lot of things, but when he talked about alienation of labor, I think he was on to something. He described workers alienated from the product of their labor, without a holistic connection to the production process and the use -- the human meaning -- of the product. It's dehumanizing to be a mechanistic middle part of some process both the source and destination of which is invisible. Marx called it estrangement from one's humanity.

Can you slow down and pare back on other aspects of a hectic life enough to create the time for the simple enjoyment of hands-on tasks that directly create a tangible usable product? Our souls need to see where and how our work matters, aside from the paycheck. Humans need visceral connection to making concrete and good things. Aside from reducing consumption, self-provisioning addresses the spiritual problem of alienation from our own labor and reconnects us with the humanizing satisfactions of work that's meaningful to ourselves, our families, our community.

Simplicity Approach #4: De-cluttering. All this stuff we get not only depletes the Earth to make it, but it clutters up our own life. Would neater and more spare surroundings at home and at work feel good? Of course, you can also clutter up the place with things you made yourself, so don’t go overboard with the self-provisioning. In fact, don’t go overboard with anything – that’s the ultimate lesson of simplicity.

Simplicity Approach #5: Paring away distractions. What distracts you from being present to life, from focusing on what’s most important? Our smart phones are a major distraction. The Amish are very good at thinking about technological conveniences and noticing exactly what it is that is made more convenient. If the gizmo is making it more convenient for you to be disconnected from your family, from your community, from the Earth, from what your best self really cares about, that’s not the convenience you want.

Stress, consumption, work that feels unmeaningful or alienated, clutter, and distraction. Which of those five problems apply to you – maybe just a little bit? As a first step -- before even thinking about which strategies you might try for tacking any of these, take 30 seconds to tell someone else which ones are issues for you: Stress? Consumption? Alienated work? Clutter? Distraction? And if none of those are issues for you, that’s wonderful. In that case, take half a minute to articulate that to someone. Either way, find another person and tell them.

And then ask them to tell you which one of these five is, for them, the biggest problem: stress, consumption, alienated work, clutter, or distraction.

In this month’s issue of On the Journey is a poem by Peter Gizzi called, “Lines Depicting Simple Happiness.” It’s a love poem. One of the lines says:
“With you nothing is simple, yet nothing is simpler.”
I was struck by that line. Relationships are complex – usually even more complicated than my relationship with simplicity. “With you nothing is simple,” says the poet to his beloved. And then adds, “yet nothing is simpler.”

I have been pondering this. How does the experience of simplicity emerge from the complexity of a relationship?

In my experience, it feels simple when we belong. When we belong, then we know who we are, and what is ours to do, and that it will matter, then it all feels simple. It's when we don’t belong, when we are out of place, that we get confused and feel overrun. Who are we? What are we supposed to be doing? What does it matter? It can all seem overwhelmingly complicated. But when we belong, we know our place and what to do. There’s no confusion. It’s simple.

All of the issues I mentioned: stress, consumption, alienated work, clutter, and distraction – contribute to the sense of not belonging in this world. The path of simplicity, then, is a path of belonging.

May 2019 for you be a path toward ever-clearer belonging. Then you, too, may have that feeling that, though nothing is simple, nothing could be simpler.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Simplicity"
See also Part 1: Owning and Being Owned
Part 2: Complexity is Good. So is Simplicity.


Complexity is Good. So is Simplicity.

Simplicity, part 2

Since what we own also owns us, some care in selecting what to buy and own is warranted. Some helpful questions:
  • Does what I own or buy promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, or does it induce passivity and dependence?
  • Do I buy and own things that serve no real need?
  • How tied am I to installment payments, credit card debt, product maintenance and repair costs, and the expectations of others?
  • What impact does my purchasing have on other people and on the earth?
  • Would the beauty and joy of living be greater if I had less, consumed less, and my life was based more on being and becoming and less on having?
Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity also looked at what he called human scale. Have our living and working environments and supportive institutions reached enormous scale and complexity? Can they be decentralized into more comprehensible and manageable entities? People need to know what they have contributed and need to have a sense of shared rewards and responsibility. That’s not possible when we are tiny cogs in an incomprehensibly vast and complex system.

Of course, Elgin didn’t invent the ethic of simplicity. Before him, Henry David Thoreau extolled living simply. He wrote:
"I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all encumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run. . . . 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."
At about the same time, our Unitarian forebear William Henry Channing wrote:
“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, to all bravely await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.”
A number of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, particularly in the school called the Stoics understood that a good life must curb excessive desire – whether for wealth, or just more “stuff.” Yes, excess of consumer products was an issue even in ancient times. Stoics wore simple clothes, ate plain food, slept on a simple straw mat. They sought in this way to develop equanimity in the face of the vicissitudes of fate. As had the Buddha in India not much earlier, Stoics recognized that attachment causes suffering, so they, too, sought to cultivate the simplicity of a nonattached way of life.

On the other hand, we like complexity. Complex things have a lot going on -- and that makes them interesting. Complexity is powerful and adaptive. We don’t want to de-evolve back to being single-celled organisms. Our complexity gives us adaptability, and creativity. The beautiful words poets require complex minds and souls. Here are a few lines from the Spanish poet Lorca:
“This weeping of blood that adorns
an unplucked lyre, the lusty torch,
this weight of the sea that pounds,
this scorpion that dwells in my breast
are all a garland of love, a sickbed
where I lie awake dreaming you are here
among the ruins of my downcast heart.
And though I try hard to be careful
your heart gives me a vale with hemlock spread
and the passion of bitterly knowing all.”
Those are not words that could come from a simpleton – nor could we be moved by them without a lot very complex stuff going on in our neurons.

And yet a life of simplicity – one that is more intentional, that is easier on the Earth and more joyous for ourselves – can seem very attractive. It will seem particularly attractive during times of stress. And that brings us to:

Simplicity Approach #1: Reduce stress. Life can be hectic, frenetic. Stress levels are high. The American Institute of Stress reports that
“Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades.”
Do we have to work so much? Can we slow down, enjoy family and friends and our faith community more? That’s one approach to simplicity: relaxing, taking it easy. Not just on occasional vacations, but as a way of life. Don’t produce so much.

Simplicity Approach #2: Reduce consumption. This approach focuses particularly on the environment -- though accumulations of stuff can also contribute to stress. The more we spend, the more we are encouraging exploitation of labor, depletion of resources, pollution, and greenhouse gases causing climate change. Climate change is already despoiling the beauty of our planet and bringing new hardships to some areas. Much more catastrophic effects are not far away. Can we step lightly, reduce our footprint – live simply that others may simply live?

These first two approaches fit well together: make less money and spend less money. If we cut back our consumption, we can afford to cut back on working. The story is told of the two ancient Greek philosophers, Diogenes and Aristippus. Diogenes lived in poverty, while Aristippus, having secured a position at court by flattering the king, lived a life of wealth. One day Aristippus stopped by to visit Diogenes, who was eating his dinner of bread and lentils. Aristippus said, “If you would learn to be subservient to the king, you wouldn’t have to live on lentils.” Diogenes replied, “If you would learn to live on lentils, you wouldn’t have to be subservient to the king.”

I think we all need to serve something, but maybe the king you’ve been serving doesn’t represent the life you really want. Maybe you’re serving a kingdom that’s wrecking the environment, and maybe the lifestyle you are thus afforded is too. “Live content with small means” as William H. Channing said, and you may feel happier and more free as well as going easier on the Earth.

NEXT: Simplicity Approaches 3, 4, and 5.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Simplicity"
See also
Part 1: Owning and Being Owned
Part 3: Simplicity and Belonging


Owning and Being Owned

Simplicity, part 1

The Amish Ordnung – their set of rules – prohibits or suing in a court of law or running for political office, though it generally allows voting. Public electricity is prohibited, though most groups generate their own from diesel generators or batteries – or, increasingly, solar panels -- for limited purposes that include home lighting and running the motorized washing machine, which almost all Amish allow.

Automobiles and radio and TV are prohibited, and the Ordnung requires a particular style of clothing, hairstyle, and carriage design. Most Amish allow chainsaws, pneumatic tools, and running water for the bathtub and inside flush toilets – though 30 percent of the Amish population live in church districts that forbid these. Half of the Amish live under an Ordnung that prohibits pickup hay-balers and half live under one that allows them. Each church district, comprising 20-40 families, has authority to modify its own Ordnung as it sees fit. Any church district that grows to more than 40 families splits into two; thus, as the Amish population has grown -- doubling approximately every 20 years since 1901, and exceeding 330,000 in 2018 -- so has the number of Ordnung. Making a change, though, requires unanimity of the membership, so, by design, change is slow.

In 1900, as the telephone was spreading across America, many Amish also installed phones in their homes. Within 10 years – by about 1910 – the Ordnung of most Amish church districts had banned telephones from their homes. Home telephones were determined to be too much convenience, to promote more connection to the outside world than was healthy, and, within the community, to promote gossip. Home telephones, as parents of teenagers have been noticing since long before there were cell phones, reduces shared family time, which the Amish are very intentional about preserving. Also, Amish maintain their Ordnung through the practice of church leaders paying a visit to urge a wayward church member to “put away” their jet ski, or whatever forbidden technology has been noticed. Home telephones would weaken the power of these visits. The Amish noticed that, even if church leaders always came by in person for such a visit, an in-person visit in a context where phoning each other is common takes on a different meaning from an in-person visit in a context where such visits are the only ways, other than church, that neighbors are in touch with each other.

I’m impressed by how carefully Amish communities think through these issues. We Englishers – the Amish term for nonAmish of any ethnicity – will often mention “unintended consequences” of some action or technology. The Amish show us that just because consequences may not have been intended doesn’t mean they were unforeseeable, if we had carefully and collectively slowed down to think through the implications.

For instance, on the telephone issue, the Amish saw that they needed telephones to conduct business. They also saw pro-family aspects of telephones, such as contact with relatives in other settlements. So Amish places of businesses often have a phone – just not in their home. And they might have a cell phone, but keep it in the barn. Or a church district will construct a phone shanty at the end of a lane where there may be several land-line telephones, each shared by several families. Every day or two somebody from the family strolls out to the phone shanty to check messages and return phone calls. What a contrast that is to the way I live! Even my most deliberated purchases are impulsive by Amish standards.

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Our theme of the month for January is simplicity. My relationship with simplicity is complicated. Facebook gives you eleven options for indicating your relationship status: you can be single, in a relationship, engaged, married, separated, divorced, widowed, in a civil union, in a domestic partnership, in an open relationship, or it’s complicated. “It’s complicated” is a semi-official category of relationship. That's the relationship I have with simplicity.

Once upon a time, simplicity and I were “in a relationship.” I was a fan of Duane Elgin’s 1981 book, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple Inwardly Rich. Elgin described a way of life that
“embraces frugality of consumption, a strong sense of environmental urgency, a desire to return to living and working environments which are of a more human scale, and an intention to realize our higher human potential — both psychological and spiritual — in community with others.”
From Elgin I learned that one ought to be be careful about what one buys and owns. Everything you own also owns you.

Remember how when you were a kid you wanted a pony? Your parents probably said, “That’s a big responsibility.” But you didn’t care. (If you had someone in your life who you believed had the means to produce a pony, and were caring enough to give you guidance about responsibility, then you also knew you had someone who could bail you out if you turned out not to always be 100% up to the responsibilities.) But as you got older, and started to have and take more responsibility, you developed interests that you weren’t willing to give up to spend hours a day feeding, and grooming, and exercising a horse and cleaning and maintaining its stable. You realized all the things you’d be giving up – that the horse owns you as much as you own the horse. OR, maybe you grew up and DID get a horse, because you loved them so much you were happy to be owned the caretaking demands.

But what’s true for horse ownership also applies to everything we buy and own. Do I own my cell phone or does it own me? Well, both. For most of us, life is a matter of
  • owning and being owned by a cell phone;
  • owning and being owned by a car;
  • owning and being owned by a house;
  • owning and being owned by a set of living room furniture;
  • owning and being owned by all the equipment in your kitchen;
  • owning and being owned by each major and minor appliance in your house.
Do you want a life of being owned by all that? Maybe the answer is yes, but it’s a question to investigate and explore – something to be intentional about instead of finding ourselves unwittingly arriving, step by step, at a life you wouldn’t have chosen all at once.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Simplicity"
See next part 2: Complexity is Good. So is Simplicity.
Part 3: Simplicity and Belonging