This summer I was following a really engaging blog on simple living. The author was attempting to radically simplify and she was eliminating "things" from her life at breakneck speed. It was fascinating! Inspired, I tried to follow some of her suggestions. Following her lead, I eliminated paper towels, paper napkins and dish sponges in favor of cloth napkins, dishtowels and rags. Next I banned aluminum foil, saran wrap and plastic baggies. After that, I replaced most of my cleaning products with things like vinegar or dishwashing liquid. I redoubled my commitment to cloth diapers. I trashed garbage bags, instead using whatever shopping bags accumulated in the house. I ruthlessly ravaged every drawer, cabinet and closet in the house, dumping several car loads of "nice but rarely-used" items at St Vincent de Paul. I thought about this woman constantly (I called her "The Simple Lady") and was really excited about the changes "we" were making to be more simple. The house felt so much more manageable. We were saving a good deal of money. It "felt good" to amp up the simplicity.
Then my "Simple Lady" ditched her microwave. Richard wouldn't let me ditch ours, but we agreed to move it to the basement. I shunned it altogether and he used the clandestine appliance only rarely. He calls it his 'Black Market Microwave'....
Then she got rid of her bed. I thought that was perhaps ridiculous.
Then she stopped using shampoo and started growing dreads.
I gave up. She had me beat.
But I didn't stop following her blog. Every now and then she added something that we mortals could do as well - and if possible, I did. But in December, she suggested that a good way to simplify Christmas - and protect the environment - was to eliminate Christmas lights altogether. That really stopped me dead in my tracks. For the first time I began to wonder what "simplifying" was really all about. If we can't be a little lavish with electricity at Christmas to honor the Incarnation of the Light of the World.....are we really doing simplicity for the right reasons? I finally thought to wonder if growing dreadlocks contributed anything to the world at large?
I had to do a little soul-searching about what my own quest for simplicity was really all about. I came up with a lot of reasons that simplicity is so trendy these days. It's good for the environment. It saves money. It makes our houses tidy and spacious and more like the Beautiful Houses in magazines. It makes us feel good about ourselves (perhaps in a self-righteous sort of way) in contrast to the rampant materialism of our culture. At the very least it assuages some of the guilt of being so deeply implicit in the world of "have" when so many "have not".
Most of those are not bad reasons to desire simplicity....but there has to be a better reason to pursue simplicity. These reasons are not at the heart of Christian simplicity. Live simply so that others may simply live. Yes! But the way I was pursuing simplicity was not really helping anyone else to simply live. Or at least that was not my primary aim in pursuing profound simplicity.
Then Richard and I started looking for a new house. We are renting an adorable, cozy little house with a lovely flower garden in the backyard. In many ways, it is a great fit for our desire to be simple souls. So when the owners decided to put the house on the market, we seriously considered buying the house. For a variety of reasons, that turned out to be an impractical idea and we began looking at all sorts of houses. The house we ended up wanting most was a surprise to us both. In short, it didn't fit our image of "simplicity".
Richard liked it mainly because nothing was breaking inside. Unlike most of the houses we considered, this house had a new roof, a new furnace and a new water heater. There was no foreseeable major expense coming down the pike with this house. He also liked that in this house, we'd have a bedroom that could accommodate more than just the bed. At present, our queen-size bed takes up the entire room (and blocks the door from fully opening) and if you want to get up in the night for a glass of water, you must grasp the bed, edging carefully around it to avoid tripping over the bodies of various children who have migrated to our floor overnight.
I'm better at not squishing a child in the night than Richard is and so I liked the house mainly because it had a nice backyard and a lake. Three seasons out of four, my kids and I spend mostly outdoors. The whole time I was in New Zealand, I pined for my house back in Pennsylvania. But when we got home, I only got to live in it for three months before we moved again. To my surprise, I don't miss that house at all. I miss the yard. So I was happy to find a house with a lovely backyard where the kids and I can grow sunflowers and strawberries and feed squirrels. It's a great space for setting up a sandbox and a sprinkler for the kids and a porch swing for their parents. The house also is within close walking distance of a long, narrow lake with a paved trail. I'm so excited to walk and bike alone, and with Rich, and with the kids.
Those were the factors that weighed most heavily in favor of the house. We were also excited that the house had a wood burning fireplace (something we've wanted but never had in any of the five homes we've had together since marrying seven years ago....). But both of us hesitated to make an offer on the house because of the feeling that the house was not "simple enough". In reality, it's not an elaborate house. Nothing inside the house is updated or upscale. It's simply newer and more roomy than we'd expected "our kind of house" to be.
I did some soul-searching about why we were considering that particular house and I realized that it was because it seemed to offer our family the most opportunities to enjoy.... the truly simple things in life. It was a space where we could snuggle around a crackling fire in the winter and quietly tend sunflowers in the summer. The traffic-free lake trail would allow us to easily devote family outings to biking and feeding ducks instead of visiting commercial establishments. In the house itself there would be ample space to offer hospitality and create community. Since the vast majority of the families we know now have four children, asking two friends over for lunch on a Saturday means having twelve children and six adults to fit into the house; hosting a daytime women's prayer group has sometimes meant having seven women and sixteen or more children in the house (-it has also meant limiting the invitation list for lack of space). But still - we held back.
Sometime during the month that we hesitated and deliberated about the house, it finally hit me. My idea of simplicity was really....shallow. It was also very vain. And it was (ironically) materialistic. Basically my version of simplicity boiled down to a question of the image that I wanted to possess and/or project rather than the orientation of my heart. It was mostly about the stuff I owned or did not want to own. Upon seeing the insipid version of simplicity I had been pursuing, I was forced to try to redefine the type of simplicity that I ought to be pursuing. Real simplicity serves persons - both in their need to be welcomed, loved and nurtured by community - and in their need for the material basics. Over the course of a few days, my understanding of the proper pursuit of simplicity was radically altered. The blogs and the magazines may beg to differ, but actually, simplicity is not about things! That is the whole point!
We can't quantify simplicity by evaluating anyone's material possessions - because real simplicity is about looking at persons instead of things. Real simplicity frees me to forget "things" and my own image - and focus more on Jesus and other people. Genuine simplicity is not the self-serving "virtue" that the magazines imply it is - it must free us to meet the needs of others. Real simplicity welcomes the gift of the person, and sees "things" as a means of making the person comfortable and fostering a sense of community. In contrast, "cultural simplicity" is still about persons serving things and being defined by their things. It might be more apt to call it "elegant minimalism" than real simplicity. Contrary to the blog/magazine version of "simplifying", authentic simplicity has less to do with what stuff is in your home and more to do with who is welcome in the home (and how comfortable and free they feel in that space). It also has much to do with our stewardship of whatever material things the Lord has allowed to pass into our care - how preoccupied we are with obtaining and maintaining things, and how tightly we're holding on to those things in our homes. Are we willing to loan them out? Let a child touch them? Give them away when we realize someone else needs them more than we do? Risk that they will be damaged rather than protect them at the expense of damaging the feelings of another person? Neglect our upkeep or enjoyment of them in favor of being present to persons? Venture away from them in order to serve others and get involved in our community? Deny ourselves the endless desire for the acquisition of more/newer/nicer so as to be able to give more abundantly to those without the basics? I think these are the questions that "simply" beg to be asked.
We bought the house. So we're not perfectly simple people anymore. And it turns out that we never were to begin with. But I pray that the path to perfect simplicity winds around that sweet little lake and through a house bursting with people. I pray that it leads to a place where I can answer all those questions I've just realized that I need to be asking with a resounding "yes!". I pray it leads to a joyful and close knit family - a family that happily foregoes many of our "wants" so as better to be able to supply the "needs" of others. Most of all, I hope it makes me more fully and generously available to Christ and anything He asks of me. Any other kind of simplicity would be simply a waste.