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

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