Category Archives: Simplicity

Making the Cut

We’ve been purging a bit around our house lately, clearing out some stuff from our shelves that we no longer need. It’s a fairly common practice for us. We like to keep things down to manageable levels. The less we have, the less there is to clean, store, and move.

It’s a practice that needs to catch on. A new self-storage facility opened recently just down the street from us. According to statistics, we have enough self-storage space in the US for the entire population of the country to comfortably fit inside. (And this while the average size of an American home has tripled in the last 50 years.)¹

But how to decide what to keep and what to get rid of? That is always the question. For my wife and I, sentimentality does not play a very big role in our decisions. While we were in the midst of our latest round, I came across this prayer by the patron saint of Switzerland:

My Lord and my God, take from me everything that distances me from you.
My Lord and my God, give me everything that brings me closer to you.
My Lord and my God, detach me from myself to give my all to you.

St. Nicholas of Fluë

That’s a pretty concise prayer, and one that gives us insight into how to decide what stays and what goes, whether we’re discussing our possessions or our pastimes. It’s very similar to the prayer of an earlier saint:

Let me neither rejoice nor grieve at anything, save what either leads to Thee or leads away from Thee.  Let me not desire to please anyone nor fear to displease anyone save only Thee.

Let all things transitory seem vile in my eyes, and all things eternal be dear to me. Let me tire of that joy which is without Thee and to desire nothing that is outside Thee. Let me find joy in the labor that is for Thee; and let all repose that is without Thee be tiresome to me.

St. Thomas Aquinas

These lines from what is reported to be Aquinas’ daily prayer echo the same sentiment. If it draws me to God, keep it. If it does not, get rid of it. This is useful, though it helps more for categories of stuff than individual items. It’s hard to know where a particular T-shirt falls in relation to these questions, but it’s easier to decide if a particular hobby or interest does. So, my hangers are all backwards in my closet again.²

Trying to cut stuff from our lives isn’t just about organization; it is ultimately about focus. The less we have to deal with, the more we can focus on what matters — loving God and loving others.


¹ Statistics from http://www.becomingminimalist.com/clutter-stats/

² The closet trick is to turn all of your hangers around backwards. When you wear an item, turn the hanger back around. After a few months, the hangers that are still backwards give you a pretty good indication of what you could get rid of.

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Filed under Priorities, Simplicity

Every Day Alike

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.

Romans 14:5-6a (ESV)

Holidays are a challenge. I don’t mean just the “I have to put up with aunt so-and-so and cook a ton of food” challenge. Holidays seem too narrow. Why do I need one day a year to focus on being thankful? Should I not have a spirit of gratitude all year long?

I have been accused of being somewhat of a humbug by my children and friends. Maybe I am resistant to being told how to feel. Maybe it is the length some of these feelings are supposed to last. I am sure the commercial exploitation of some of these “feelings” sours me as well.

I appreciate the church calendar, though. It is a useful didactic tool and aids in receiving a balanced diet of teaching and reading every year. Plus, there are lessons to be learned about submission by following it. (My birthday, for example, tends to fall in Lent, and occasionally on Ash Wednesday.) I am a fan of Advent, the lesser of two penitential seasons on the church calendar. Advent gives me ecclesiastical insulation against the onslaught of American holiday madness. (I don’t care what Starbucks puts on their cups and I won’t be shopping for anything this Friday.)

Beyond that, focusing expectations on a single day throughout the year seems too narrow. Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, birthdays, Mother’s and Father’s Day, the list goes on. I hope I make those closest to me feel special and loved more than one or two days a year. Why should I have to wait to give someone a gift?

Even on the church calendar, I tend to only observe the “major” feasts and fasts of the year — the “red-letter” days. I appreciate many of the saints of the past but I don’t see the point in celebrating one particular day for them. Some of these people are my friends and mentors; I interact with their letters and books more often than once a year.

I have had to learn to accommodate those who esteem one day as better than another. I have some in my family who really enjoy the build up and arrival of a special day even though I do not. It’s not a theological or moral position as much as it is my temperament. I am pretty even keeled and that extends to days and seasons.

I am not an Eeyore. I try to have a level of gratitude and celebration every day. I also have an element of sorrow and repentance most days. I take some solace in remembering that the first instances of most of our special days came as a surprise. Mary knew the time for giving birth was drawing near, but she didn’t know exactly when. The disciples did not expect Easter. Pentecost, Ascension, even our commemoration of saints are tied to dates that weren’t planned — at least not by man.

Any day can be special; we just have to get out there and see if it is.

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Filed under General, Simplicity, Thankfulness

The Limits of Prosperity

Since its founding, the United States has been a nation committed to prosperity. At times, dreams of prosperity have inspired both large amounts of immigration to our country as well as mass migrations within our country. We have not been on a straight uphill climb of economic growth without setbacks and challenges, but the general direction of our economic output and standard of living has been up.

The “Greatest Generation” grew up in the Depression and went on to defeat the most powerful military threat since Napoleon and Genghis Khan. They came home to the most industrialized country in the world and, after a post-war recession, grew our collective prosperity in the 1950s and 60s.

Their children, the “Boomers,” were the beneficiaries of all that prosperity, but they wanted more — more freedom, more voice. Free love and anti-Vietnam conflict protests characterized the generation, but they went on to defeat the USSR, not through military action, but primarily through economic action. Our “prosperity engine” produced more revenue than the USSR and we were able to use it to modernize and grow our military, breaking the Soviet economy as they fell behind in the arms race.

Now, the Boomers’ children are still engaged in our country’s longest conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we have been unable to fundamentally change the political and cultural landscape to our favor. The Islamist world points to the United States as a “great Satan,” full of decadence and imperialism. This criticism is, at least in part, pointed toward our prosperity.

Even internal to our own country, we see doubts and counter-cultural shifts against the idea of unmitigated prosperity. Minimalism has become a growing trend as well as, to a lesser extent, freeganism. Both of these movements can be framed as reactions to our excessive prosperity as a culture. Our rampant consumerism, largely fueled by businesses seeking constant growth, has led to a complexity of technology and choices for all kinds of products and services, and yet many people today seem to desire greater simplicity in their lives — a reduction of choice.

As we have “conquered the world” in many regards in the 20th century, we lack a common enemy or cause to provide us the simplicity of a compelling, shared goal. Lacking this common goal, we are awash with fragmented causes, though the prevailing mood seems to be increasingly, “Just leave me alone and let me watch Netflix.”

This is the context we find ourselves in as a church. Too often we are seen as one more special interest cause in a sea of choices. We are not just another option for community involvement and self-actualization, though. We offer simplicity and a counter-prosperity hope. Water, wine, and bread are not merely symbolic, but possess power. To seek God and to be united with him is a life-consuming venture, one that brings simplicity, contentment, and rest.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)

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Filed under Capitalism, Envy, Gluttony, Progress, Simplicity, Success

Reflection

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You have to be still to reflect. The stiller you are, the better reflection you give. My wife reminded me of these words on a recent walk along the Puget Sound. The particular inlet we were walking next to was particularly still and we could see reflections of the opposite shore.

The proper thing for me to do at this point would be to quit writing and let you reflect. You are certainly under no obligation to continue. In fact, to do so may be counter-productive.

The purpose of a book of meditations is to teach you how to think and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up such a book and simply read it through, you are wasting your time. As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put the book down because meditation has begun. To think that you are somehow obliged to follow the author of the book to his own particular conclusion would be a great mistake.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 215

Authors have different goals than readers. My goal this year is to produce 500 words per day on this blog. I have no idea what your goal of reading it may be. Even if your goal hasn’t been reflection, I hope that something here has sparked that within you. Few things are more necessary, or more endangered, than quiet reflection. This TED Talk on how to find your calling underscores the necessity of quiet reflection.

As colleges and universities are busy indoctrinating their incoming freshman into whatever it is they think is important through the increasingly popular freshman seminars, I wonder what would happen if instead of team building games and diversity presentations, they merely took away all electronics and made the campus quiet for a week. My hunch is that there would either be open revolt or a step toward some meaningful transformation within the lives of the students.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a weighty task: to raise the Son of God. Why this particular girl? How did she manage it? God’s grace overshadows the whole enterprise of the incarnation, but perhaps one small contributing factor is revealed in Luke 2:19. Mary is only one of two people who are revealed in the New Testament to have pondered. (Peter in Acts 10 is the other.) I’m sure other pondering occurred in Bible times, but Luke was inspired to make sure we knew that Mary pondered the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. She was still and she reflected the grace of God.

We are not grace, light, truth, or love by ourselves. We only reflect these from their source. To reflect well, we must be still, quiet, at peace. Everything around us wars against that end. To the extent the challenges to our quiet reflection are successful, our capacity to reflect grace, light, truth, and love is diminished. May God make us sensitive and protect us so that we may reflect upon him and reflect him.

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Filed under Discipline, Growth, Mary, Priorities, Silence, Simplicity, Solitude

Confessions of a Capitalism Non-Conformist

Hear this, you who trample on the needy
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals
and sell the chaff of the wheat?”
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
“Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

Amos 8:4-7 (ESV)

These verses have been on my mind lately, partly because they are the Old Testament reading for the lectionary in a few weeks. Mostly they stick in my mind because they speak to American capitalism. The Sabbath-trampling is obvious and rampant; we don’t even wait anymore. But the dishonesty is also increasing.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many cell phone plans? I am convinced they make it confusing on purpose. The more complicated it is, the more likely a customer is to buy the more expensive thing that they are pretty sure will do what they want. Buying a car is wrapped in the same mumbo-jumbo shell game shenanigans.

I had thought about buying a tablet computer, perhaps as a replacement for my laptop, but as the choices have multiplied, overlapped, and obscured each other — even from a single manufacturer — I’m realizing these devices have fallen to the same fate. They have become about making the most possible money, not about making the best possible device.

This, it seems, is where capitalism leads. It starts with open competition, which is a benefit to the consumer. If anyone who wants to can make a widget, then in theory, the best widget-maker would prevail. But as marketing¹ enters the equation, this is obscured. If I can make an average widget and wrap it in good marketing, you’ll buy my widget even if it isn’t the best. As soon as producers and sellers figure this out, we start the headlong decline to where we are now.

Complicated products tend to fall victim to this first: automobiles, computers, and the like. It’s hard to spin a simple product like salt, thread, milk, pencils, or paper — not that you can’t still achieve market dominance.

My wife uses DMC embroidery floss for her cross-stitch projects. Is it of superior quality? Not that I can tell. DMC’s edge is it has become an industry standard because of two simple factors. First, the DMC color numbers are used in a majority of cross stitch patterns. Second, the colors are consistent — no dye-lots or variations across years of the same color.

In my mind, DMC deserves the place they have earned. No marketing hype. No complicated graduations of quality, quantity, and color.² They introduce new colors on occasion, but I think they are honestly reaching the limit. (454 according to their website, not counting metallics. Do I want warm grey medium, warm grey dark, or warm grey very dark?)

Bells and whistles don’t attract me anymore. Discussions at work of systems and software to accomplish multitudinous tasks cause me to roll my eyes and reach for paper or index cards. These are commodities with little variation. (I do have strong feelings about Leuchtturm1917 notebooks, but that’s a quality issue, not a marketing issue.) The company making index cards isn’t trying to figure out ways to spin them to increase margins. They know they are making a commodity and do so probably just to “round out their product line.”

I take comfort knowing that my preferred tools — pen and paper — are not platform dependent and won’t apply incessant incremental upgrades until they are incapacitated and demand replacement. There is no complicated pricing scheme for ink or paper. What matters at the end of the day is the quality of the work I produce with it. Would it be that everything was judged on its merits and not on its marketing.


¹ I had to take marketing as part of my MBA program. I felt like I should shower after each and every class. They should just call it “how to lie in order to make more money” but I suppose that would be poor marketing.

² If the same folks who run cable companies sold embroidery floss, you could only get Very Dark Blue Violet if you bought the 200-color pack, and you couldn’t buy any color by itself. “Oh, you need Very Light Baby Blue? That’s available with a premium add on that also includes 4 metallic shades!”

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Filed under Capitalism, General, Simplicity

It’s Lent, Again

Someday, my life will sync up with the church calendar. Last year we did pretty good as we moved overseas during Lent, forcing us to give up most of our worldly possessions for the season. This year, we had the most un-Lenten Lent we have experienced as Anglicans, and only now as Eastertide draws to a close do we find ourselves again sitting on folding chairs in an empty house.

It began in earnest 3 days ago when our beds were boxed and the final boxes of our stuff were loaded to begin another journey. I really like our bed, so weeks on loaner furniture and hotel beds does not appeal to my back. Self-mortification is only romantic when you read about someone else’s.

Reducing my stuff to what I can fit in a few suitcases is a valuable exercise, though. It makes me realize how much excess we have and it causes me to question if I still need this or that. It makes me wonder if I am too attached to some things (mostly books).

My morning view as I sit and write has not changed, other than the lack of rocking chairs on the patio outside the window. The view is the same, but the setting is different. No desk or bookshelves. The lack of furniture means the ambient sounds now are more prominent. The refrigerator’s whir sounds like a mild roar now without the quiet ticking of my grandpa’s clock.

Simplicity is currently trendy in some circles. It’s a natural reaction to our society’s clamor for material things. Every time we move I think how much easier it would be if we had less. I feel like we are fairly spartan until I see it all boxed and being loaded.

As I sat in a lawn chair in my driveway watching the movers load the crates, I wondered what the casualties would be this time. It seems there is always something, which will mean more time spent tending my stuff as I navigate the claims process and then wait to see what, if anything, we will receive in reimbursement.

Some things did not make the cut and were either given away or thrown away. Once we arrive at our destination, another round of pruning will inevitably occur as we unpack. It’s self-examination in a material sense, a very Lenten idea.

As draining as it seems, the forced accounting of our possessions through frequent moving has been a good thing overall. It has encouraged us to travel this earthly pilgrimage lightly. It has also encouraged us to hold on to our stuff loosely, because we know with each move, we could lose any (or all!) of it.

Even in the discomforts of moving, I am reminded that I enjoy a very high standard of living in comparison with most of the world’s population. Even now, on loaner furniture in a mostly empty house, I have a roof over my head, clean running water, and indoor plumbing. I have heat and am protected from the elements. I am blessed far beyond what I deserve.

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Filed under Lent, Simplicity

Off the Grid and Anthony the Great

Living “off the grid” seems to be a growing movement and somewhat ironically, there are several websites dedicated to it. The degrees of isolation vary greatly, from completely self-sustaining to seeking after a simpler lifestyle, but the idea holds some attraction, whether it is turning our backs on the mess that is our modern society or merely a Thoreau-inspired desire to live deliberately.

As I read about the Desert Fathers and the early monastics, I wonder if there are any parallels with our current desire to retreat into the wilderness. When the first Desert Fathers wandered into the deserts of Egypt and Israel, the Roman Empire was still ruling most of the known world. Anthony the Great—the first Desert Father and the father of monasticism—and others were not fleeing barbarian invasions from the north. In fact, Anthony was contemporary with Constantine.

Yet few would argue that Rome at that time was a city shining on a hill in terms of virtue. The empire had been ruled by a series of totalitarian caesars for a few hundred years and Rome’s decadence was well-known and largely unopposed by most of society. We are not given clear evidence, though, that Anthony and the others were fleeing from a particular societal issue. Instead, they sought to flee from mankind in general. They wanted to minimize distraction and focus their energy on seeking God. They sought purity of heart through isolation, repentance, and asceticism.

The off-the-grid movement seems to seek its own purity through isolation and forms of asceticism as well. Many in this movement do not profess religious motivations, but hold up some sort of ideal they are seeking to be faithful to—family, health, economics, conspiracy, or any number of things.

One common thread between the two phenomena seems to be rejection of the prevailing prescribed path. These are all individuals who sought to strike out on their own in order to follow their vision. If a few others want to come along, so be it. The off-the-grid movement is a rejection of the idea that one has to be connected with all the latest technology and conveniences and with the costs associated with them. For the Desert Fathers, it was a rejection of everything unnecessary. These are similar, but there are differences; the core motivation being the most obvious.

Nobody would want Anthony the Great or most off-gridders as “neighbors” (excuse the incongruity). By society’s standards, they are weird, probably subversive, and possibly dangerous. They strike out on their own to find a new way of doing life, largely free of the considerations and prescriptions of mainstream society. The fact that anyone can do that is subversive and even threatening to some.

That both the Desert Fathers and the new off-gridders attract interest from so many others seems to indicate that they hit a nerve. This is something that interests more  and more. People want to see how it is possible and what the results are. Some want to see it to convince themselves they can’t do it, others to consider if they can.

If we are going to need modern hermits to preserve western civilization through a second dark age, then they need more books in their homes; they need community; and above all, they need religion. I don’t know where this is headed, but it is interesting to contemplate from the suburbs.

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Filed under Asceticism, Simplicity, Solitude