The Promise of Simplicity: How To Do More With Less
Doing More With Lesss
"Simplify, simplify! 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." -- Henry David Thoreau
When I was young, I thought promises were made to be broken. I guess because my parents, older kids, and teachers often extracted promises from me under duress. I’d make a promise to get relief from the pressure the put on me. But when the pressure was off, my promise no longer guided my actions.
For many people, I fear, the promise of simplicity is a promise made under duress. Pressed by life circumstances, and/or the rhetoric of insistent activists, they promise to live lightly, cut consumption, and clear clutter from their homes and lives.
But the power in such promises lies not in the promise-maker’s hands. It lies in the circumstances that prompted their pledge—in the problems they hope to solve. When clutter is gone and pressure relieved, the promise loses its meaning—at least until the clutter and pressure come back, which they inevitably do.
If we want to achieve the true promise of simplicity—doing more with less—we have to go beyond solving problems. And to creating the kind and quality of simplicity that we truly long for.
Simplicity As Problem Solving
In the sixties, my wife and I lived in a shared house in the country. Not quite a commune, but more than a co-op, we each had different reasons for living a materially simple life. Most of us gave at least lip service to Ghandi's dicta to “live simply so others can simply live.”
About half our group lived simply because they saw simplicity as a weapon in the fight against environmental degradation and the multi-nationalization of just about everything. To them, simplicity’s promise lay in its potential to solve global problems. They were intense, righteous in their commitment, and dedicated to simplicity to the point of austerity. But they didn’t seem to have much fun.
My activist friends didn’t live simply because they loved that way of life. They had no time for love. They had an enemy to fight. None had heard the phrase, “What you resist persists,” and probably wouldn’t have believed if they had.
When the eighties dawned, I wasn’t too surprised when the problem-focused simplicity seekers in our group, and throughout North America, gave up tie-dyed T-shirts for pinstriped suits and traded VW vans for Volvo Station Wagons. '
They had given up on the promise of simplicity, and doing more with less. Living simply had not solved the problems they’d fought against. So, war-weary and burned out, they shifted strategies. Over lunch in the city, an ex-activist friend tried to explain his rationale to me.
“I was tired of fighting,” he said. “People didn’t get it. And I was tired of being poor. Back then, I thought that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Well, I couldn’t stop the juggernaut, so I thought I might as well get on board. Maybe I could change it from inside. Besides, I figured I deserved a reward for working so hard for so long.”
When I asked him if he was doing what he loved, his eyes glazed over. He turned away and stared out the window at the mountains on the horizon. Later, he said he hated his job, and was thinking about simplifying again.
When my friend headed back to his office in an oil company tower, I headed to the riverbank path to write in my journal and think about what he had said.
He’d thought simplicity was a merely problem-solving tool. A weapon in a struggle against what he thought was wrong in the world. But when that struggle began to feel futile and frustrating, he abandoned it, and simplicity as well.
“There’s no promise in simplicity,” he’d said at lunch.
Simplicity As A Way to Live Rich and Free
I take a different tack than my friend. I too embrace Gandhi’s suggestion to live simply so others can simply live. I want to do more with less. I too want a clean, green, healthy environment. But I also live simply because it seems the easiest way to be rich, free, and healthy—inside and out.
I remember explaining this to another wealthy friend. He'd just discovered that we owned three horses, and rode almost every day, throughout all the seasons.
“How can you afford horses?” he asked. “You’re a dirt poor hippy. I’m a corporate lawyer. I make twenty times what you make, and I can’t afford horses.”
I shrugged and asked, "Why not?" It turned out that his idea of owning horses, though, was quite different than mine.
I owned a purebred Appaloosa that forgot to spot. So, in spite of impeccable bloodlines, he couldn’t be registered, and had been gelded. He cost me less than 1/10 what a spotted Appaloosa with his breeding would cost. I rode him bareback. I traded nail-pounding for riding lessons and stabling. I cut hay for a neighbor in exchange for a years worth of feed.
When I told my friend this, he laughed, “My God, if I bought horses, my wife would insist on buying best of breed and stabling them at Spruce Meadows (one of North America's most expensive stables).
“We’d have to buy complete sets of tack," he added, "and new riding clothes for she and I, and the girls. There’d be lessons, feed, vet bills, a 4-horse trailer. It would never end. We think about it, but there’s no way we can afford it. I can’t believe you guys own an Appaloosa!”
“Two,” I reminded him, “and an old quarter horse that still turns on a dime.”
The Promise of Simplicity
I live simply because I love its promise of freedom, richness, meaning, and genuines health and wealth. I love that I can do more, much more, with less.
I love that instead of racing for ever on the work-and-spend "hedonic treadmill," seeking material abundance, I can strive for sufficiency --having just enough money and material to do what I truly want to do.
Living simply gives me time to read, think, and write. Time to enjoy evocative conversations with friends. I used to ride my horse down to the river, where I would tether him in a belly-high patch of grass, then lie back and sketch out a new story or essay. Or just watch clouds drift by overhead, and enjoy the moment.
I don't live in the country any more, and I don't have horses, but I still live simply. I still lie back in the sun and sketch out story ideas. I don't own a car. I have my business office, and a writing studio that doubles as a dining area, next to my living room. All this in a 1-bedroom apartment with a ground-floor deck that looks out across our communal lawn on the wildest park in the city. It's just 2 minutes from the beach.
When my brother came to visit me this summer, he was guided by the GPS in his rental car. He told me later that he thought the GPS was not working, because it kept directing him into nicer and nicer areas of town. "Bruce couldn't afford to live in this area!" he said to himself. But I do, because I live simply.
I live simply because I know the systems of life upon which we all depend can only provide for my needs, not my greed. I live simply because I love the aesthetics of the simple life. To me it promises a life that is rich, beautiful, and full of meaning.
Mostly, I choose to live simply for it’s own sake, just because I love it. “All the great things,” said the poet Robert Frost, “are done for their own sake.”
I agree. That's the promise of simplicity.
More about Bruce on his HubPages profile.
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