Is Simplicity overrated?

Richard Foster says:

The wonderful thing about simplicity is its ability to give us contentment. Do you understand what a freedom this is? To live in contentment means we can opt out of the status race and the maddening pace that is its necessary partner. We can shout “NO!” to the insanity which chants, “More, more, more!”

I was thinking about this because my last post was a bit rah rah for me. (We melancholy souls have to take a big breath of something deeper after a thrilling World Cup head butt.)

I think regularly about creating meaningful balance in my life – and like you, I long for contentment. However, if contentment is directly related to simplicity, as Foster suggests, I may be plum out of luck, at least in this life.

This is my current chaotically happy life. I work 20 hours/week, attempt to manage a family of four and one four-legged creature, farm my little garden of veggies and flowers, write original, heart-felt music, read, blog and do some freelance writing, collaborate with musicians and perform, and do the laundry. It is a lot. Especially the laundry. But, I feel as content as I did when I was living a simpler life.

It’s not only me. I have an amazing young colleague who somehow manages to be on Facebook and Twitter (both tweeting and keeping up on multiple tweets), while texting and emailing. Not only that, she is a productive worker and a lovely, thoughtful human being at the same time. You would think she had two brains.

The newer thoughts about building community is to accommodate to this new way of being in a technology world. I don’t think it’s so bad, even if it feels chaotic sometimes.

Remember in the 1981 movie, City Slickers, where 3 middle aged men head to a dude ranch to have some good ole male bonding? There is a pivotal scene where Jack Palance, who plays the quintessential cowboy Marlboro man, Curly, tells Mitch (played by Billy Crystal) what the meaning of life is. He holds up his index finger and say, “One.” Mitch pushes for more, saying essentially, “one what?” Curly’s response paraphrased “you have to figure that out. Then, everything else is just crap.”

Could it be that simple?

Is simplicity a precondition for contentment? I suppose Foster is saying that it can be and/or should be. Part of me resonates with this in a big way. But, there is a part of me that wants to yawn.

What about the many places to contribute, all that good work to do, all those beautiful people to know?And what if I am called to do more than one thing with my life? Could it be that simplicity is over-rated – meant for a few – but not me?

I used to be very focused on creating a simple life. The voluntary simplicity movement was big when I was in college in the 80’s and 90’s. I was attracted to the values espoused about living with less, even though it carried an assumption of privilege. One cannot really take on voluntary simplicity without first having lived in excess. There is a cynical little voice that says, “well, isn’t that nice of you – choosing voluntary simplicity when most of the world lives simply because they have to.”

At the time, I think there were a number of factors at play. First, I was a transplanted farm girl plopped down in the heart of Seattle attending an expensive private university. Adapting to the traffic noise and the stimulation of so many people had its challenges.

Second, spiritually, I was on a particular track. I developed a major crush on Saint Francis, who as you may recall, gave up everything he had – including his loin cloth – to find God. I had begun to understand Jesus as someone who particularly loved the outcasts, the poor, and the powerless. This encouraged me to pursue my life in a very practical, sacrificial way.

At the same time, I began reading books like “The Simple Living Guide,”  “Unplug the Christmas Machine,” and everything Thoreau. I listened to Bruce Cockburn (those were his Latin American travels and “Rocket Launcher” days) and John Michael Talbot, a Christian-monkish-singer-songwriter who wrote songs glorifying “Lady Poverty.” In my humbly arrogant peer group, money was the enemy and the rich were pretentious and oppressive.

The irony didn’t escape us. The men in my peer group dressed intentionally like homeless people. That didn’t mean they didn’t spend time on their “look.” Seriously, my girlfriends joked that the men spent more time choosing their clothes at Value Village than ladies at the Nordstrom half-yearly sale. I loved those people fiercely and their choices effected me.

Plus, I wanted to be a natural woman, baby. I even tried to only wear fabrics like cotton or wool. “Polyester is so unnatural,” I told my mom one day when she tried to talk me into a jacket. I bought my first Birkenstocks -before everyone was wearing them (she says smugly.)

It all fit together.

But things are different now. My life itself isn’t simple, but it is full. Having a family to care for necessitates taking on a bit more. I hope I do it with some degree of focus and grace. Competition still exhausts me and I try not to live too close to the margin, but am sometimes ineffective at it. I believe that the effort matters.

The danger in seeking simplicity itself – is that we can narrow our lives down significantly. Something about that seems wrong to me. My spiritual path seems to be more about opening up than closing things off; about grace more than rigidity; about generosity, not tightening my grip.

Whatever it means at different stages of our lives, living with contentment in who we are and what we have been given is a process. And like all processes, they change sometimes to accommodate change. Life is full. And it is good.

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6 Responses to Is Simplicity overrated?

  1. Deidre says:

    now I know why you chose to live in Raymond House ! Didn’t we all have Berks ?

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I think maybe you’re defining simplicity to narrowly and that’s why it seems to be a struggle. It doesn’t meant to narrow down your life necessarily – it means to get rid of the stuff you don’t need so you can pay attention to what matters. It sounds like you’re actually doing that quite nicely even though you’re doing several things – they’re all life-giving, God-honoring things. [I have to defend simplicity a bit on principle, as I’m currently in the midst of a 9 week sermon series on the topic. :)]

  3. Jette Shears says:

    Wonderful post, as usual Shannon. Would you believe it? I actually once conducted an “Unplug the Christmas Machine” workshop at our church (okay, maybe 6 ladies attended and 2 came just to be nicely supportive, even though they really had NO desire to unplug anything…). So this post resonates with me. I remember Lady Poverty (lost the album, sadly) I constantly try to simplify and then life fights back and complicates things again. Back & forth it goes… Keep at it, simplicity is so much more than just freedom from stuff. But it definitely is ALSO an appreciation that even with evil in the world life is truly good.

  4. shannonbeck2 says:

    Yes, Jette. you are one of my peers … I did the Unplug workshop, too. Thanks for responding!

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