Oversimplifying Simplicity?

July 3, 2009


“Modern life has given us useful, inventive solutions to our complex challenges, bettering life but distancing us from the ability to live simply and knowledgeably off the land.”

- Lisa Graham McMinn, from her book The Contented Soul

Reading The Contented Soul by Lisa Graham McMinn has been a refreshing reminder of how the best gifts God has given us–family, friends, good work, creativity, and the resources and beauty of the earth–bring the greatest fulfillment and contentment to our lives. And it’s easy to breeze through a number of the book’s references to a life built on these good gifts as “a simple life,” nodding along in agreement because I know what McMinn means. But I got tripped up by the word “simply” in the context of this quote, when it suddenly occurred to me that the word “simple” may not actually be the best word for what we know we mean when we use it. It’s possible we’ve been misusing this word for a long time.

For example, as far as I can tell, living off the land–relying on weather, seasons, local provisions, and the kindnesses of community–is usually a grueling, dirty, thankless job. And the exhausted, gritty faces of farmers I’ve known in the U.S. still seem quite glamorous next to the faces of subsistence farmers in poorer countries. Their “simplicity” is in fact a stark poverty that we dare not idealize.

But even those of us who have chosen to live “simply,” if not so intimately, off the land discover that to call such a life “simple” is misleading. Gardening organically, finding and cooking local and healthy food, taking public transportation, line-drying clothes, repairing broken things instead of buying new ones, and finding electricity-independent forms of play are often hard, complicated endeavors. At their most difficult, these choices can require a lot of energy, know-how, and frustration. At their best, they may sharpen our skills, give us greater peace and quiet, strengthen our communities, and benefit the health of our families and our earth. But “simple” they are not.

Ironically, in romanticizing simplicity, our culture has also become quite materialistic about the concept. “Simplicity” has been hi-jacked by marketing experts and purveyors of dissatisfaction to entice us to decorate our lives with a deceptive patina of old-timey ease: Yes, share meals with friends, but don’t forget to top the table with antique distressed milk buckets (available only at Store X), filled with native wildflowers (available only at your florist); By all means bike to work, but don’t dare to do so on anything less capable than a brand-new, world-class, $1500 touring bike; Care for the earth not by wearing hand-me-downs, but by purchasing only hand-woven, lavender-rinsed, sun-dried, organic cotton, worn here by our flawless model as she lounges in her hammock.

Call me cynical, but I’m frustrated with such an inaccurate portrayal of what we mean by simple living. Certainly our desire to live in ways that allow for the thriving of all of creation is God-given, and not misplaced. So what do we mean when we say we want to live simply?

I’ve bandied about some alternative phrases in my thinking about this: Right living? Intentional living? Deliberate living? Gentle living? But I think that, as Christians, we ultimately want faithful living. Faithful living applies to everything we do, say, and think. It’s conscientious and full-bodied. It’s active and contemplative. It’s a stepping forth in trust to do what is right. It doesn’t depend on us buying more things, and it doesn’t promise us easy or uncomplicated existences.

God has set a standard and a hope for our living, and when we adhere to his injunctions and rejoice in his promises, we live faithfully, while also knowing that faithful living isn’t simple. There are crosses to bear and sacrifices to make, but over them all is a redemptive Gift with which nothing can compare.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Stan Thornburg October 8, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Seventeenth Century Quakers used to call it living without “cumber,” cumber being possessions that encumbered rather than freed us. Too much was too much to care for, maintain, etc. Maybe cumberless living could replace simple living.

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