The Meaning of Simplicity

January 26, 2011

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” —Hans Hofmann

Our enthusiastic mentor, Helene, has organized a discussion group to support Melissa and me during our six-month break from shopping. The eight of us will meet monthly to talk about readings from the Northwest Earth Institute’s Voluntary Simplicity course book and any problems (or triumphs!) we NSEers encounter along the way. Our first meeting was on Sunday; the topic of discussion was the meaning of simplicity.

Each of us in the group has spent time over the years paring down and organizing our possessions, but decluttering physical surroundings is only one aspect of voluntary simplicity—and, for us, it isn’t the most difficult or pressing aspect. What several of us are struggling with is reclaiming our time and establishing priorities. Life in Northern Virginia is cluttered with opportunities. There are service and political organizations of all stripes, sports leagues, shopping malls, restaurants, bars, galleries, libraries, and parks—all before you cross the Potomac into D.C., where a whole host of other events and attractions awaits.

Henry David Thoreau escaped to Walden to eliminate these distractions, “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” We in the group either do not want to move to the woods or don’t have the means to do so. For us, slowing down, setting priorities, and living consciously will involve negotiating the hustle and bustle of an ever-growing metropolitan area.

This negotiation can, of course, be tough. On top of the wealth of opportunity in this area, the pace of life here is ramped up. Driving anywhere in the car is stressful, never mind the “get out of my way” mentality you encounter once you arrive at the store or the office. Courtesy and community are the first casualties when so many folks are short on time.

Add to this the numerous conveniences we partake in to free up some of that time: buying bottles of water, eating fast food, choosing the car over walking, biking, or public transportation, to name only a few examples. These quick and easy options are not simple, though, because they create unnecessary waste. To practice voluntary simplicity, we will have to be more aware of this waste and start making choices that better align with our values. (We will also have to realize that these choices may initially seem counterintuitive to our friends, family, and colleagues, and that is OK.)

The words that kept coming up during our discussion on Sunday were “deliberate” and “intentional.” We are not forsaking beauty or art or opportunity or even luxury. We are embracing all elements of life in a deliberate way—“sucking all the marrow out of life,” as Thoreau put it. Making an intentional choice—to walk to the store, cook from scratch, read a book, or help a neighbor, for example—is a positive action. The pleasure of simplicity will come from choosing what we want to do and then experiencing it.

Thanks to Bernice, Helene, Judy, Mary, and Melissa for their contributions to this post.

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4 Responses to “The Meaning of Simplicity”

  1. Mary Bellamy Says:

    You and Melissa are not the only ones being supported. Reclaiming my time and establishing priorities has been a huge challenge for me lately. My goal had been to be useful and as a result I was feeling swamped with obligations. Since our meeting I have decided on a new goal — to be useful and have fun. I have declined 3 different volunteer opportunities this week and am now more excited about being involved with the projects I have chosen.

  2. Leigh Says:

    To counter the “get outta my way” mentality on the mean streets of the D.C. area, a friend offered a wonderful, simple, slowing-down suggestion: Shoot ’em the peace sign! I’ve subbed this a few times when someone passed too close in front of my car; it’s much better than cursing and has the bonus effect of keeping the blood flowing smoothly.


  3. Congratulations! I was just listening to an account of a group of folks who are treating shopping like an addiction, recognizing that it arises from deep wounds and grief (collective rather than individual in this case), and using a 12-Step approach.


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