A loon's plaintive cry echoes across the water as I settle into my campsite. For more than a week, I've been backpacking alone on this wilderness island in Lake Superior, and my heart and spirit are calmer. I have only what I can carry. Each day has brought with it only the simplest of decisions: How many miles to hike? Should I spend the next hour watching the water and its pageant of moose, osprey, and ducks? Or should I fix some Ramen noodles for dinner on my pocket-sized camp stove?
If only life back home in the Chicago suburbs were so simple. Most days, I'm juggling work deadlines, my husband's travel schedule, the assorted needs of family members, and a list of church and volunteer activities. All good things in themselves. But not simple.
Where Simplicity Begins
Simplicity is big business. Stores are devoted to helping me find it; consultants want me to hire them to divulge the secret. Much of the advice on living simply is "here's what to buy." But simplicity as found in clear plastic organizers, a new, easier hairstyle, or a streamlined wardrobe hasn't cut it for me.
I used to believe simplicity might be discovered in a different location. Moving out of the city to a rural area, where the ideal of the simple life has been polished to a fine halo.
An article in the early '90s extolled the lives of a young couple who, desperate to give their children and themselves a simpler life, moved to the wilds of British Columbia. There they chopped wood for cooking and heating, dug a well for drinking water, and grew all their own produce. No television, no distractions, no preoccupations with material acquisitions. Surely the simple life was theirs. I envied them.
But nothing is that simple. A few years later I read of the demise of the couple's marriage and their move back to civilization. They'd given up everything for an ideal of simplicity, and instead found nothing but chaos and unhappiness. They discovered simplicity isn't a location. But if simplicity can't be found in a place, where is it?
Jesus, who had the most complicated assignment in history ("Save the world!"), lived a simple life. As he sent his 12 disciples on a special mission, he cautioned them: "Don't think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment. No special appeals for funds. Keep it simple" (Mark 6:7-9, The Message).
I am the equipment. In some ways, it seems easier and simpler to buy something. To relocate. But Jesus says simplicity begins with me.
To Live Like You Are Dying
The poet Mary Oliver writes, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" Do I spend my wild and precious life organizing my closet by season? Will having a Blackberry make life simpler? Should I cross all the items off my to-do list before I go to bed? How do I decide what constitutes simplicity and what—when neglected—will lead to tension and frustration?
"Live like you are dying," sings country musician Tim McGraw and former American Idol winner Kris Allen. Perhaps this is the key. Or if you'd prefer, listen to the apostle Paul: "I do want to point out, friends, that time is of the essence. There is no time to waste, so don't complicate your lives unnecessarily. Keep it simple—in marriage, grief, joy, whatever. Even in ordinary things—your daily routines of shopping, and so on. Deal as sparingly as possible with the things the world thrusts on you. This world as you see it is on its way out" (1 Corinthians 7:29, The Message).
Live like you are dying. The world as you see it is on its way out. When I think about what's really important—what I would do if I knew I didn't have a lot of time left—I cut to the heart of simplicity.
I turn off my cell phone and stop checking my e-mail for a few hours. I go for a walk in the park—in the sun, rain, wind, or snow—and use my five senses to see, smell, feel, taste, and hear the natural world around me. I let the dishes soak in the sink for an evening and snuggle with my daughter on the couch. I sit in the dark on my back porch, marveling at the Big Dipper.
So much of the time, we surround ourselves with white noise. God wants to talk to us, to linger with us, but we have to make a quiet space for him to come in. Simplicity is making that room, cutting out the things that clamor for attention, if only for a little while. It means small steps. Journaling for 15 minutes in the morning, trusting that what's most important will float to the surface. Letting prayer bookend my days. Life's complicated. Giving some of that complication to the Lord moves me a step closer toward simplicity.
I think, I journal, and I muse: Do I need the latest, the fastest, the best? Is a 15-step makeup application necessary every morning, or will a little mascara and lip gloss accomplish the same thing? Do I feel proud telling others how overscheduled I am, affirming my worth? Or take pride in complaining how exhausting my volunteer work is? Do I need the badge of a complicated life to convince others and myself of my value?
Maybe we avoid true simplicity because it promises to strip us of our veneer, to show who we are under all our posturing, makeovers, organized pantries, and well-ordered social calendars. Living the simple life means giving up some of our ideals about how we want others to view us. In other words, simplicity begins by eroding our pride.
Humble hospitality is a great place to start learning simplicity. Invite friends over without fussing. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect; for your home to be comfortable, instead of immaculate; for your food to be take-out or hot dogs on the grill instead of filet on the best crystal and china. Eat slow. Talk long. Laugh much. "A pretentious, showy life is an empty life; a plain and simple life is a full life" (Proverbs 13:7, The Message).
Simplicity isn't a place, a wardrobe, or a diet. It's not found in clear plastic boxes. There's no 12-step plan, no index-filing system, no consultant who can create it for us.
Simplicity isn't something we can or cannot afford. Some of the world's most poverty-stricken people know the secret, and many of the world's wealthiest don't. Simplicity means open hands, open hearts, open eyes. Breathing deeply. Taking time.
When I die, I want to know I've paid attention to this "one wild and precious life" God's given me. True simplicity is a way to begin.