The Simple Life

The Simple Life

July 17, 2014

The simple life. We long for it. Pursue it. Theologize it. Downward mobility, simplicity, reconnecting to the earth—whether the waves are driven by social justice, nostalgia, or ecology— a major current of culture runs toward the simple life.

Because this is America (land of the me and home of the crave), our cultural currents appear on the radars of markets. What’s selling now? Anything green—which means cardboard packaging with one-color soy ink. Thrift stores (re-use centers!). Movies where superheroes of former generations inhabit didactic binary worlds. Co-ops; but not belonging to them—just shopping there. Books set in eras of beasts and duty that predate not only technology but antibiotics and indoor plumbing. Farming. Quilting. New monasticism. Beekeeping. Paleo(lithic) nutrition. Homeschooling. Bicycles. Refusing vaccines. Vaginal, drug-free birth.

There’s no question that the movement toward simplicity is justified backlash. As a nobody technology resister, I face seventeen emails, twelve Facebook notifications, two LinkedIn connection requests, seven texts and three missed calls on any given Sunday. Cocktail party rhetoric displays shock that we can manage (with two kids!) in a 900 sq. ft. house—with no microwave, no water softener, no Direct TV, and only two gaming systems, one tablet, two laptops, and two smartphones.

But the nostalgia is false. The average American woman has three and a half more hours of leisure time per day than her 1965 counterpart. I can opt out of being pregnant for a decade. I have a 0.00015% chance of dying in childbirth. When I decide to have babies, someone else can feed them (even Dad). A machine does my dishes. I’m not considered blind. I’ve never butchered an animal in my life. I didn’t build my house. I can eat cheese without knowing about rennet. I don’t know how to make or repair most of the things I own. I have all my teeth. Growing my own food is a hobby.

Our paths to the idea of a simple life are misguided. But the most misleading may be the nomenclature. Spend my life watching TV and buying stuff? Simple. It’s the path of least resistance.

Tuesday I spent the morning making bread, went to three grocers and a friend’s coop to find enough non-GMOs to last my family for the week, weeded for an hour, burned 45-minutes modifying a skirt to sustain its use past pregnancy, spent a small fortune to make an ethical chocolate cake, and managed the sprinkler all evening to keep the grapevines and fruit trees alive. There’s a reason the Amish are called the “plain folk” and not the “simple folk.”

A life connected to the earth and each other is not “simple.” It’s not obvious, straightforward, or easy. It’s a myth to believe it ever has been. Following atrocities in overseas textile factories, I made a commitment to wearing only homemade or second-hand clothing. That’s been far from simple—in either purchase or in psyche. I spend more time thinking about clothes than ever before. They consume more of my life.

In English, “simple” means both elegant and stupid. This is problematic. It leads us to believe a simple life can be both beautiful and amateur. But we can’t be grounded, modest, fundamental, humble, unconditional, and unthinking. We no longer live in a world where innocent comes unconditional. I doubt we ever have.  

The difficulty of the simple life is that it’s not simple at all. What’s more straining and complicated than spending an hour in prayer? In silence? In awareness? In responsibility? In devoted attention to a child?

There’s no such thing as the simple life. This minute, I’ll walk away from one of the household laptops to comfort my dream-disturbed daughter. It’s likely I’ll resent it. It’s likely I’ll go to her by will rather than love. (Who, by the way, is to say they are distinct?)

This moment, my heart is divided. But this unseated, pricking, willful, doubtful moment is the life I’m swimming toward. When the waves crash over, this is the life I raise my head and gasp for. It’s the uncomfortable life. The never comfortable life. The complicated, contemplated life. The purposed life. The life of intention.

It’s a life painful, but considered; a life lived with Rilke in the bowels of the question. That life is not simple.
But if we live the questions now, perhaps we can inch (clearly, humbly) toward the everything awaiting in that distant day.

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