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.

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